Tucked away on the shores of a lake lies a popular cruising spot for gay men. One summer's day, Franck (Pierre Del Adonchamps) falls in love with Michel (Christoph Paou), an attractive but lethally dangerous man. Franck knows this, but pursues him regardless...
Desire, the film admits, is both urgent and irrational
So addictive were the novels of Patricia Highsmith, and so closely did they cleave to my own worldview, that once I discovered them I felt I had to ration my exposure, rather than devouring them all at once, as I felt compelled to. Of twentieth-century novelists, only Graham Greene exerted a similar effect upon me—the sense of a whole world I could enter and inhabit. It was a large yet finite resource; I didn’t want to think what would happen once I had exhausted it—and to this day, a copy of A Dog’s Ransom sits, deliberately unread, upon my bookshelf. One of her lesser novels, I’m told, but I suspect it might take me some time yet to decide that for myself.
Her very particular sensibility, however—a combination of the romantic and the utterly nihilistic—has proved oddly problematic for filmmakers. Hitchcock’s Strangers On a Train was a good start—her first novel, her first screen adaptation, and a triumph, thanks in part to a script by no less than Raymond Chandler. But while there have been occasional successes since (most notably, Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley), most adaptations have failed to capture the essential qualities of her work. Even Chabrol—a kindred spirit, one would think—fell short: his Cry of the Owl, from 1962, while perfectly fine, lacks the sheer monomaniacal intensity of the book. (I continue to hold hope, however, for the forthcoming Two Faces of January, scripted and directed by the very talented Hossein Amini; and for Todd Haynes’ soon-to-shoot adaptation of Carol, AKA The Price of Salt, starring Cate Blanchett.)
Alain Guiraudie is not adapting one of her works, here; nevertheless, his fourth feature is truer to the spirit of the author—more profoundly Highsmith-ean—than any recent film I can recall. In its confluence of sex and death, its close equation of desire with dread, and its fascination with the codes of male homosexual expression, it feels entirely of a piece with the best of her work.
While on holiday, a young man, Franck, visits a secluded lake, a cruising spot for local gay men. He begins a tentative friendship with an older, apparently married man, Henri—who seems to be looking as much for company as sex—and soon develops an infatuation with Michel, a well-built, well-hung hunk whose appeal is only slightly diminished (or amplified—it depends on your taste) by his disconcerting resemblance to Tom Selleck.
Of course, there’s a pecking order among these libertines, and the subtle delineation of this hierarchy is one of the film’s most insightful qualities. Ageing, overweight, Henri knows full well has no shot with Franck—much less the Apollonian Michel, who bestrides this small world like a colossus—and thus conducts himself with melancholy resignation. Franck, too, knows his lust-object has greater value in the sexual marketplace than he (when Michel arrives at the beach, every gaze turns in his direction), yet dares nonetheless to hope—despite the presence of Michel’s regular lover, far too possessive of his prize to share it".
And then, one evening, Franck sees—or seems to see—Michel drown his companion while they’re swimming. The murder is shot in a single, long take, entirely from Franck’s point of view, and it says something of the quiet assurance of Guiraidie’s technique here that the incident exerts a similar magnetism upon the audience as it does upon Franck himself. Who is shocked, of course—but also aroused. And therefore, decides to say nothing to the police, but instead to pursue the suddenly-unattached Michel. Knowing even as he does that he may well meet a similar fate.
It wasn’t until halfway through the film that it occurred to me that this was less a metaphor for the terms of queer sexuality (its reckless and thrilling anonymity, its close relationship with peril), than a straightforward depiction of same. Desire, the film admits, is both urgent and irrational; it cannot be regulated—even under the shadow of death. It’s telling, I think, that all the sex depicted here is unprotected. Ostensibly a thriller, this in fact one of the most intelligent (one hesitates to say 'penetrating’) studies of the AIDS crisis yet put to film.
Nothing in Guiraidie’s filmography to date suggested a work of this power. He seemed content to occupy a marginal place in the French industry, churning out a series of shorts and medium-length works, often distinguished by an disconcerting, oneiric surrealism. I was particularly impressed by 2001’s That Old Dream That Moves, a 51-minute sort-of romance, set in a factory whose immanent closure is accompanied by furtive stirrings of homoerotic passion; and by some of the images in No Rest For the Brave (2003), a kind of existential nightmare that came complete with its own language, rules and even physics.
This, though, is something else altogether: more classical in form, and far more disciplined. Early reviews out of Cannes focused on the explicitness of the lovemaking scenes. (There’s a few hard-ons, yes. And a cumshot. Get over it.) But to concentrate on this is to ignore the elegance, the Aristotelian rigor of its construction. The action never leaves the lake and its immediate surrounds; the characters are defined solely by their proximity to this setting and to each other. And its most overtly formalist device—a repeated shot of cars parked near the water—acquires deeper significance (and menace) with each iteration.
Each of the two men between whom Franck oscillates, meanwhile, Henri and Michel, seem to advance a contrasting vision of gay male relationships: sympathetic companionship on one hand, nonchalant sexual gratification on the other. (Whenever Franck suggests to Michel they might prolong their time together—at least, past the point of orgasm—he’s none-too-gently rebuffed: just because they fuck, Michel points out, doesn’t mean they have to dine together as well.)
It falters only in the final stretch, as a local cop’s investigation of the murder begins to occupy more of the narrative. For the first time, Guiraidie’s confident handling of scenes seems to abandon him; the action briefly acquires a rushed, somewhat perfunctory air. But so much of this is so good, so smart and impassioned, that it announces the arrival of a major talent—ironically, more than a decade into what has already been an interesting, if determinedly singular career.