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Stranger by the Lake
Still from Stranger by the LakeCourtesy of Peccadillo Pictures

The naked ambition of Stranger By the Lake

Alain Guiraudie on why making the gay arthouse film was ‘a political question’

Alain Guiraudie's psychologically complex, explicit French arthouse thriller Stranger By the Lake is out in cinemas today. It sees nice young lakeside cruising-spot regular Franck (Pierre de Ladonchamps) fall for Michel (Christophe Paou), one of his hook-ups – even after he witnesses him drown somebody. The internal conflict he goes through makes for a radical exploration of desire and risk that won Guiraudie a Best Director prize at Cannes. It's also been getting the prudish hot under the collar – UK distributor Peccadillo was forced to put shorts on all the men in their outdoor advertising posters after the original nude ones were deemed too saucy. At the Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival the warm and charming filmmaker tells us what he thinks Al Pacino is missing out on.

DD: Why did you set your film in a cruising spot?

Alain Guiraudie: I'd never really spoken in my movies before about my own sexuality – sexuality between men – or passionate love, what it means to have someone really underneath your skin, and not be able to get them out of your mind. I wanted to speak about complex human things, but in a very simple way through a familiar world I know very well, this little community by this lake. I wrote and shot it almost like a documentary. I didn't want to make something banal out of their lives and go into their houses. The big objective of cinema for me is to show reality and make it bigger than life, so it enters another dimension – something fantastic or dreamlike. I've been interested in tragedy for a long time, Greek tragedy above all, which is why I set up this story entirely in one single location. But I wanted to mix tragedy with comedy. Usually when we speak about love and sexuality we try to be very serious, but it was important for me to forget solemnity.

DD: Did you have any thought to redress the kind of hetero take on the cruising scene of William Friedkin's 80s thriller Cruising? Your film still has a strong element of danger.

Alain Guiraudie: I wanted to make a film about anguish, and put my character between his desire and big moral questions – what he's willing to do to realise his desire. So I needed a murderer. I only saw Cruising after I'd written the script. William Friedkin's gaze is very outside the story; too sociological for me. I think it's real, that San Francisco was really like this in the 70s and early 80s before Aids, but his point of view's too spectacular, a Hollywood point of view, and I think it's also because he's not homosexual. And a big, big problem is that Al Pacino was not able to kiss men, and make love with men. The film misses that. I didn't want to do the same thing. I wanted to describe a kind of paradise. Mine's a sunny movie, in nature. Cruising is the opposite – in the city, at night.

DD: Your film's one of several recent successes – Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue Is the Warmest Colour is another one – featuring intense gay romances that have crossed over to straight audiences. Why now?

Alain Guiraudie: I have some problems with Kechiche's movie. Like Friedkin's film, Kechiche's is on the side of showbusiness and spectacle, and like, voyeurism. I was very impressed by it but more impressed than moved. I think he's a great director but I couldn't help wondering what it means for a heterosexual man to shoot two women making love and to direct them. A lot of porn films for men use those kind of scenes. But for me it's my sexuality, and I have to speak from the place I am; of the things I know. I wanted to speak about desire and love, and now we're able to speak of universal love with a homosexual story. It was quite a political question for me to show that this is possible. We still want to show reality more and more deeply in the cinema. I haven't seen so many movies that show sexuality realistically, even between men and women. We show a few seconds sometimes while they're making love but it's very fake – we don't see the positions, we only see in mainstream cinema the woman on the man, you see the nipples of a woman and that's all, or before and after love. It's time for us to mix the sexual organs and great emotional love scenes. We used to consider these organs as something very dirty, and classified this as pornographic cinema, while considering love, passion and kisses as being on the side of lyrical cinema and poetry. But the sexual organs can take part in poetry too. So it was important for me to mix all that up. To separate sex from pornography.

“It's time for us to mix the sexual organs and great emotional love scenes” – Alain Guiraudie

DD: Was it difficult to cast the movie?

Alain Guiraudie: It wasn't so hard. The explicit sex shots had body-doubles. But the actors were supposed to act love - for the kisses and caresses, body to body, that's very hard I think. Before beginning the casting research for actors I thought it would be much more difficult. We met a lot of actors – 400 or 500. in Paris there's 13,000 actors, so it can be hard work. But we found this couple of men quite quickly. It was very pleasant to work with them. They agreed before the casting with the questions of being naked on the screen, and doing love scenes, but when I decided to work with them we had a lot of work still to do. We discussed a lot how far they were willing to go and what I expected of them. We did a lot of rehearsals too, but it was very pleasant, there was no problem. These kind of scenes are still very complicated because as a director I am afraid of these kind of scenes, and the actors too. Because I think we are scared by sex. It's a lot of intimacy, you put a lot of intimacy in these scenes, it's my intimacy and also the fact that I ask a lot of the actors. In reality we are afraid of sex, and of seeing it, because it's like watching your mother and father making love. It's a definition by a French psychoanalyst but I think it's true. It's the act that made us exist. As we were afraid of these scenes we worked a lot on them – discussing and rehearsing. So by the time of the shoot it was very pleasant and peaceful.

Stranger By the Lake is out now and available on VoD on March 7