From Cinema Scope #55, Summer 2013
There’s not much physical intercourse (a mere two hardcore sexual acts) in Alain Guiraudie’s L’inconnu du lac, but, still for, say, 80 percent of the film his camera looks at (but doesn’t leer at) male bodies, most of the time naked, behaving casual and relaxed, often spread-eagled, penises dangling as they lounge on the sand by the lakeside, knees up, in an idyll that will soon be violated by one of their own. This cruising beach is one of a sparse number of locations, not including the lake itself (five to be exact: a parking lot, the woods where the men vanish to fuck, the paths leading to them, the main beach, a second part of the beach off to the left), that Guiraudie employs; the entire film is constructed around the lack of reverse shots on a macro-level. Our hero is Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), a frequent cruiser, who one day (Day Two of the film’s ten-day time span) notices the mysterious Michel (Christophe Paou), a vision of Tom Selleck-moustachioed masculinity, lounging with his current lover. A strange kind of love triangle develops between Franck, Michel, and the older Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao), the other “stranger by the lake,” who sits off by himself staring quietly out over the water until he is befriended by the naturally curious Franck.
A beguiling sense of mystery pervades L’inconnu du lac, a function of the precise editing, the atmosphere, and the controlled action; a Hitchcockian ambience is established prior to the event that motivates the film’s action, a sudden murder in the lake (explicated further in Guiraudie’s conversation with João Pedro Rodrigues that follows). An adult fairy tale that’s grounded in reality, it’s a close-to-perfect film, gorgeously shot using natural light (on the Red Epic, in meaningful widescreen!), meticulously constructed—there’s only one close-up in the entire film—and emotionally developed. L’inconnu du lac was ultimately the pride of Cannes, a film with matter-of-fact militancy straight out of Bataille that should last in cinema history well after Kechiche’s follies have been forgotten. In his cinema of passion and beauty, Guiraudie draws out that fine line between danger and desire that is sometimes crossed when we enter the cinema and surrender ourselves to its pleasures and pains.—Mark Peranson
João Pedro Rodrigues: I’ve watched L’inconnu du lac twice, and now realize that the film takes place over ten days.
Alain Guiraudie: Yes, you’re right.
Rodrigues: Only on the ninth day do you omit the establishing shot of the parking lot, which introduces all the other nine days. Was this shot already planned when you were writing? The film uses a lot of recurrence and repetition, and this evolves when you’re filming and editing, but I’d like you to begin with how you constructed the script.
Guiraudie: I wanted to return to something very simple. My first short, Les héros sont immortels (1990), was like that. It was the story of a guy who goes every night to the same square to find another guy, and together they wait for a third character to appear. I shot in 16mm, and there was already that simple repetition. After three feature films in which everything went every which way, with many different sets and imprecise geography, I wanted to make a film all set in the same place. So there was the parking lot, the path, the beach, the woods…
Rodrigues: It’s very geometrical.
Guiraudie: Yes, very “scenographic” I’d say.
Rodrigues: I sense that you rebuilt a natural space as if it were architecture: using the mise en scène and the découpage you create an architecture. I found this really strong.
Guiraudie: Yes, there was on one side the fictional—and therefore real—geography that develops a “body” with not many settings around the lake, only five. And then there was the découpage, reinforced by the recurrence. For example, the establishing shot of the parking lot and always the same introduction of the beach, as seen through Franck’s eyes. That was already in place from the beginning of the writing and the shooting.
Rodrigues: And the ten days?
Guiraudie: Yes, it was always ten days.
Rodrigues: There’s a moment on the second day, before the murder, where Franck says to Henri he won’t be coming back the next day, and then he comes back. That’s when I thought of it as a succession of consecutive days.
Guiraudie: During the writing I didn’t think that the next day had to be the day after…but finally during the editing it ended up like this. It’s funny because when it’s not stated we tend to think that in a sequence that takes place over a number of days, the next day is always the day after. It fits pretty well that everything happens during ten days. In my mind, when I wrote it, everything happened during a month, but ten days suits this dazzling story of love and passion. But normally love stories and, for example, the friendship developed between Franck and Henri, the lonely guy, take more than ten days. But I wanted to concentrate all these elements in both space and time.
Rodrigues: When I saw the film, as there is an evolving tension and suspense, I thought of it as unfolding consecutively. You don’t really know how or when many things are going to happen. For example, the murder takes place at the end of the second day, which is really quick.
Guiraudie: It’s quick, and the second day is a bit long!
Rodrigues: Yes, it’s long. Coming back to the découpage, you had already planned it before shooting?
Guiraudie: Yes, it was highly developed before the shooting. I worked on it with the help of two old accomplices, Roy Genty and Laurent Lunetta. They were everywhere: they participated in the casting, the shooting, the set design, the costumes, even in the editing and the audio mix. They are the two people who worked on the film from the beginning.
Rodrigues: I saw that three people had set design credits and I thought, “There are not many sets in this film.”
Guiraudie: They are actually credited as the artistic direction department, and then they appear again as the costume department. I understand if you wonder if it was really necessary to have three people in the costume department. Everyone laughed and asked why we needed a costume designer when the characters are going to be naked all the time. Actually, they are not always naked, and it was hard work selecting the costumes.
Rodrigues: Franck’s swimsuit is always the same. Then there is a pink shirt that is worn by Michel after drowning his lover. And then, the day after, your character wears a T-shirt that is also pink…This made me think of a connection between you and Michel.
Rodrigues: There is a very long shot, which seems abnormal, when Michel drowns his lover and then comes out of the lake.
Guiraudie: Right, it’s abnormal, that was something that I came up with when I was preparing the shooting of the scene. It wasn’t a plan-séquence at the beginning. I wanted the drowning to take place 150 metres away from the shore. You know as well as I do that even the best swimmer in the world needs considerable effort to perform that scene.
Rodrigues: As the shot was so long, I was trying to see if the drowned man was going to come out of the water. How did you do that?
Guiraudie: It was on the set that we realized that the plan-séquence was absolutely possible because the drowning worked very well 150 metres away from the shore. The drowned man is played by a diver who stayed five or six minutes underwater. Well, then he couldn’t last that long, because he needed some air…so his technique was to escape from the frame by diving under the water.
Rodrigues: In the beginning of the drowning scene, we don’t really understand if they are playing or not. The first time I saw the film I said to myself that maybe Michel didn’t drown him—I don’t know why, he is a bit indifferent, but I liked this doubt.
Guiraudie: It’s funny, you’re not the first person to tell me this. For me, Michel drowns him in a very cold manner. With this wide shot, we don’t see his lover coming out; it was evident for me. I’m very simple when it comes to these things. But it’s also good to have this doubt, and afterwards the inspector confirms it.
Rodrigues: For me it was good because it made me think that, with his characteristic coldness, maybe Michel didn’t do it on purpose.
Guiraudie: Ah, okay! Related to the fact of playing?
Rodrigues: Right. I like to feel that because it gives more depth to the character of Michel. He’s like a killing machine, a sex machine, a pleasure machine. First you see the very wide shot of the two men far out in the water, then you see Franck, then you see the drowning from behind trees—Franck’s point of view—and this is a very long shot with Michel coming out of the water, getting dressed…I wondered when you were going to cut the shot.
Guiraudie: I decided during the shooting; we tried it and we saw that it worked well. And I knew that in the worst case I’d have the reverse shot of Franck. While editing I had the same question, but it worked as well as when it was shot. I think that made the drowning more believable. People wonder how we did it!
Rodrigues: Yes, that long shot really troubled me in a good way. Then Michel disappears in the woods and you cut to Franck, who is hidden in the trees in the distance. But we almost don’t see how Franck is feeling about the murder he has just witnessed. Then you cut to the trees?
Guiraudie: Then Michel arrives to the parking lot, sees Franck’s car, and then there is a cut to the sky and the trees.
Rodrigues: Then we see Franck’s silhouette hiding, only his legs. But we don’t really see his anxiety.
Guiraudie: Right, we don’t see his reaction.
Rodrigues: I found that this is particularly well done thanks to the effect of not cutting to Franck. You refused to show his emotion there, but at the same time this is a film that talks a lot about emotions, because Franck and Michel constantly talk about their relationship, also with Henri, with whom he has conversations about “what is love.”
Rodrigues: This made me think of a homosexual version of Jean Renoir. In the world of Renoir all the characters have their reasons.
Guiraudie: Yes, that’s Renoir.
Rodrigues: I thought that you were presenting different points of view of love.
Guiraudie: Yes, at least I wanted to conduct a tour around that question. On the other hand, I didn’t want to charge the film with emotions. I don’t think that emotion in a film comes from characters showing their emotions.
Rodrigues: I think that in this kind of cruising place there is something a bit geometrical that is fascinating. People that meet other people…
Guiraudie: Right, this way of walking around in the woods.
Rodrigues: Also the way you use the repetition of the shots. Maybe in the cruising scenes there is not much of this. But there is a geometry that arises.
Guiraudie: Even a choreography! Let’s say that there is an action of wandering and a burlesque choreography. Before doing the film, I knew I wanted to emphasize people staring. I wanted to have many people exchanging glances. Seduction comes through looking at somebody. Finally, I thought it wasn’t bad to show the cruising place in wide shots. It is less psychological this way.
Rodrigues: It’s like showing the staring in the geometry of this choreography. The first time that Franck goes to the woods it’s quite a wide shot, he sees somebody, then he looks at him once, then another time. It’s as if the action of staring lays out the space.
Guiraudie: People have to look at each other, but we also have to see this ourselves.
Rodrigues: That’s why it’s funny. It’s joyful. It’s like the day that starts with a man who is lying like an odalisque; he has a joie de vivre. This reminds me again of Renoir, or Matisse.
Guiraudie: The film has this idea of being joyful, enjoyable, pleasant, and hedonistic.
Rodrigues: And dark at the same time.
Guiraudie: I wanted to have the same point of view all of the time. There are some stares that are watchful at the beginning—we hunt the other, we flirt—but these stares quickly become oppressive. After the drowning, the stares that Franck receives are more oppressive.
Rodrigues: Also, because you are with him, and he’s the witness…even if the others don’t know that he was the witness, their stares change only from Franck’s point of view.
Rodrigues: Coming back to the dark side of the film, when we see the erect penis of Franck and he comes, you cut to the drowning. It’s a very sharp cut. Can we say that with pleasure comes death?
Guiraudie: The film talks a lot about that. I still don’t understand this…all this relation between pleasure and death. But this is something that showed up during the editing. It wasn’t written like this. I confess that it was conceived differently at the beginning. We made a lot of ellipses during the editing.
Rodrigues: I understand, you go with what interests you at the moment. For example, when Franck arrives the next day after the murder and he sees the clothes of the dead man, you cut directly. How long was the first cut of the film?
Guiraudie: Two hours and 18 minutes. We had a very long first version. But it worked well. It’s astonishing how editing functions: there are some films where I add elements, but here we worked on the pureness, the starkness. Even the dialogues: there are long dialogue scenes that we removed to focus more on the mystery. They were replaced by continuity shots in order to create a more fantastical world.
Rodrigues: For me, the continuity shots have a relation with the absence of music.
Guiraudie: You think they have an added value because there’s no music?
Rodrigues: Because we see these shots and because there is a lot of wind and we hear the wind. We hear it frequently and we hear the cuts between the shots. It’s as if there was a drive of nature in the story, a rhythm of nature in the story.
Guiraudie: I wouldn’t have said a rhythm, but you’re right. There is a rhythm, but there is also the architectural structure that you mentioned. The way to shoot up and down, the way to crop the space in small spaces in an architectonical way…
Rodrigues: The film speaks of an enclosed universe and that happens in nature, in a free space. I really like the idea of filming this natural space as a closed space. You never wrote scenes that take place at other locations, right?
Guiraudie: No, I didn’t feel the need. It was a part of the idea of “narrowing” the film, to narrow it with its sensuality. Restaurants and bedrooms bore me…they spoil sensuality.
Rodrigues: In most of the dialogues with Henri there is no shot/reverse shot.
Guiraudie: No. The shooting plan was simple, Henri and Franck are always side-by-side; it’s very nice to have both of them in the frame like that.
Rodrigues: Until the murder, Franck always sits on the right side of Henri, and then he sits on the left.
Guiraudie: The first and second time he comes to see Henri he sits there just to have a better angle to see the other side of the beach, which interests him much more.
Rodrigues: And the first time that we find Michel, it’s the camera that looks at him, it’s not Franck that sees him. Why did you do that?
Guiraudie: We thought a lot about that. Is it the camera’s stare or is it Franck’s stare? There were even some shots where we said, we are going to start with a stare of the camera, I mean, not a stare of Franck. However, when we come back to Franck he is staring.
Rodrigues: Like in the way you introduce Michel.
Guiraudie: Yes, the idea was to enhance Michel. We had many shots where we saw him first from very far away. Franck started having more interest in him, then another shot where he came nearer and he came out of the lake…It was so laborious.
Rodrigues: I see that you wanted to make a more uncluttered film. Your other films were more baroque, especially your features. Why this style?
Guiraudie: I wanted to come back to the real world. Actually, I wrote this film after having written a very ambitious film about snipers in a city. It was a science-fiction film with a policeman who is in love with a girl who doesn’t love him…The writing of that film was for me a failure. I couldn’t reach the end. I wanted to come back to a more familiar world, a real world with a documentary reality. For example, Le roi de l’evasion (2009) took place in a fantasy world. Now I wanted to come back to this real world. It was important for me also in a political way to come back here.
Rodrigues: And showing sex in a more frontal way?
Guiraudie: Yes, sexuality, homosexuality, desire, love. I had already talked about love but it was “love-as-friendship.” Here I wanted to talk about “love-as-passion.” And sex is very important when there is love.
Rodrigues: Why did you use body doubles for the sex scenes?
Guiraudie: The actors didn’t want to do it themselves. But from the beginning I had it in mind. I think it’s very complicated to ask that of an actor.
Rodrigues: You never thought of finding actors that could do it?
Guiraudie: I saw some porno actors, but I didn’t like their acting. I wanted to dissociate the two things, but I wanted to melt them together too. I didn’t want to remain in the pornographic vignette that would have disconnected the love embraces. For example, I didn’t use porno actors as body doubles for the sex scenes. We used actors that looked like the main actors.
Rodrigues: At the moment of the blowjob you can see his mouth and it’s believable.
Guiraudie: Yes, it works.
Rodrigues: When I saw “body double” in the credits I realized that. I thought they were played by the same actors.
Guiraudie: Maybe in the future I’ll try to push it further, I’ll see. It was good because there was the choreography with the actors and with the body doubles. Have you tried to shoot non-simulated sex scenes with actors?
Rodrigues: Yes, in O Fantasma (2000). But it was difficult for them to get hard. But that worked with the character and the story, a kind of impotence…
Guiraudie: Even if you give Viagra to the body double, the Viagra replacing the desire…that provoked headaches and made their hearts beat faster. It’s very difficult. In La vie d’Adèle there is something like this when she fucks her first lover—we see his erect penis. I haven’t seen it very often. Breillat tried it with Sagamore Stévenin in Romance (1999), but his hard-on wasn’t very strong. Using the body doubles was the wisest option.
Rodrigues: Did you shoot with the body doubles at the same time?
Guiraudie: Yes, we did it at the same time…Not afterwards in the forest of Fontainebleau! The spirit of the scenes was: the actors did their lines, their choreographies, then the body doubles looked at them, and they tried to do the same thing.
Rodrigues: The two scenes with erections in the film are Franck’s ejaculation and the blowjob to Michel. Were those the only hardcore scenes that you expected to shoot or did you want to shoot others?
Guiraudie: There were other scenes, but then I arrived at my limit as a director. I wanted also to shoot penetration scenes, but they fucked without a condom. Asking a body double to do penetration without a condom…you can’t do it. They didn’t want to do it, which I understand. However, I wanted more erect dicks. Anyway, when we were editing we realized that it wasn’t really the film. We would have entered the realm of pornography.
Rodrigues: When the first guy asks Franck about condoms I wondered if you wanted to introduce that subject, having sex with or without a condom, almost in a didactic way.
Guiraudie: AIDS has a big part in sex, yet it is something that I’ve never evoked. Well, I evoked sexual illness in Le roi d’evasion in a very joyful way. It’s good that it spurs a debate, that this question is present. When you talk about love and death, AIDS is present. There are many different figures present in this lake, and I wanted to have the figure of this very hygienic guy who only wants to suck with a condom.
Rodrigues: The man with the beard?
Guiraudie: Right, we call him The Man from Tuesday Night. There was no logic in starting on one day or another. I called him The Man from Tuesday Night because the inspector asks, “What were you doing on Tuesday night?” So the murder happens on Tuesday night. For example, the man who is a bit lost that’s looking for women was called The Man Who Looks for Women. We don’t know if he’s gay or if he really believes there are women around. These guys are people that I’ve seen around or that I’ve heard about. I didn’t have to search very far in my imagination.
Rodrigues: So you evoked things that you already knew.
Guiraudie: Yes, and for example the masturbator…you have seen that as many times as I have I guess. I wanted to do a romantic film, something between love and death.
Rodrigues: That’s why Franck doesn’t want to use a condom. He asks him if he can do it with no condom before penetrating Michel. And Michel tells him, “I want you to fuck me.” Why?
Guiraudie: I think that it’s a reality that still exists today. Franck is tender and romantic and he wants to live. When he is in love with somebody he wants to live until the end. Even with transgression and the risks that accompany it. And condoms are not very romantic…
Rodrigues: And The Man from Tuesday Night is not especially romantic…
Guiraudie: Yes, and their story ends with a third-rate handjob!
Rodrigues: The first time Michel and Franck make love they jerk off too.
Guiraudie: Yes, this wonderful shot with the sundown and moonlight. Well, first times are never especially good. Sometimes you say, “Let’s finish with the hand,” and see you later. I think that we jerk off often.
Rodrigues: The film gets darker, but then there is the character of the inspector, who I find strangely funny.
Guiraudie: I wanted him to be the naïf of the story. The person that comes, asks questions, and finally starts some kind of sociological or even ethnographic investigation. I don’t think his questions are silly. It wouldn’t displease me if people wonder if the inspector would love to try too.
Rodrigues: He is troubling in a strange way.
Guiraudie: Yes, sometimes even disturbing. We cast this actor because of this.
Rodrigues: He is especially disturbing when he appears unexpectedly in the night. I’ve seen this sociological eye watching over cruising places too, as if everyone wants to know what happens there. When they speak of love, when Franck speaks about sleeping together with Michel…There are different positions about love presented in the film. There is a documentary angle that I found interesting.
Guiraudie: I think it is always positive to have somebody who passes between the audience and the film, somebody that asks naïve questions, the questions that the audience could ask, acting like an external eye. He is also the guy that is always pissing people off.
Rodrigues: Who will end up stabbed!
Guiraudie: Yes, he really was asking for it.
Rodrigues: It happens all of a sudden—I saw it as a murderous impulse on the part of Michel, something cold.
Guiraudie: I thought a lot about whether to bring back the inspector or not. I think that the fact that Michel is attacking the authority figure could enhance the idea that he is a serial killer. Another thing that I really liked is that you could think that Franck was going to make it through alive. The inspector is like a saviour, but the saviour doesn’t save anything at all. That would be the real element taken from the thriller. I’ve seen it in some films and I find that it works well. The public says, “Ah! Look, there is the saviour!” But no.
Rodrigues: There is the night, the lights switch on, he’s frightened, he thinks of Michel…but it’s the inspector. Everything is built around the thriller with the inspector, a somehow comical thriller.
Guiraudie: But I’ve never thought of it as a thriller. For example, in The Shining (1980) there is the guardian of the hotel who comes to save the family, but when we expect him to save them, Jack Nicholson whacks him with an axe. It’s in this way that I employ the rules of the thriller.
Rodrigues: There is no music. It’s like a “naturalist thriller,” like a documentary thriller.
Guiraudie: A documentary thriller, sounds good to me! I only used the sound that we recorded on the set. For example, there are elements like planes that yield tension, or the sound of a car that enhances the ambience.
Rodrigues: And the wind. Without the wind it would be less disturbing.
Guiraudie: Yes, less interesting and less sensual.
Alain Guiraudie, João Pedro Rodrigues, Stranger by the Lake, TIFF 2013