Sunday, 26 January 2014

Emancipation or Decadence?

A new and very gay French film opened here yesterday after getting some attention at Cannes. One never knows how seriously to take the breathless blurb copy and promotional hustle, but let’s accept that people liked it enough to bring it to a New York run alongside a retrospective of the director’s previous opus at the prestigious Film Society of Lincoln Center. [Update: The New Yorker blog has a positive review, and Time Out New York gave it four stars out of five. So yes, it’s getting a respectful reception.]

The early scenes in the new picture, Stranger by the Lake (l’Inconnu du Lac), are full of allure: a few comely young guys (and a slew of ugly ones), the lakeside setting, lots of cruising and making out and even some swimming. The film has a rather clunky police-procedural element suggestive of Hitchcock and some interesting characters, enough to temporarily overshadow the repetitive nakedness. But the director’s consistent choice to set up the men’s beach-towel conversations as gratuitous crotch shots pushes the film closer and closer to straight-up porn, whose aesthetic it largely mirrors.

By the time this supposedly avant-garde vehicle lumbers to its melodramatic conclusion, a viewer could be forgiven for feeling a sudden sympathy for Islamic fundamentalism. While the sex is ostensibly linked to the painfully thin plot, the overall air of amoral (even murderous) hedonism not merely portrayed but delivered over and over with cock-numbingly dull regularity leaves a viewer needing a deep breath worse than the featured practitioners of fellatio.

The protagonist drives up to the lakeside cruising spot a total of, I believe, six times in the course of the film, and each time the arrival is shot from the exact same vantage point at the same rhythm. (He even gets the same parking spot.) Perhaps this is an intentional nod to the compulsive nature of the activity on view, and the critics insist that there is deep philosophy here somewhere, including the broad hint that l’inconnu by the lake is not just the mysterious assassin but also the dreamy and bizarre-acting protagonist, if not everyone in the whole movie.

But ideas about anomie and anonymity are hardly novel to anyone who’s actually visited a gay cruising ground, and if this piece is meant as a larger statement about something, it’s pretty lite beer. Straights will be duly shocked and/or swallow hard and consider themselves modern, and gay men will find nutrition for their more prurient yayas. Little will be learned about the human condition.

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