“Contains strong, real sex.” There’s a warning which, for some, will operate as an enticement. It adorns the posters for Stranger By The Lake (or, more properly, L’Inconnu du lac) a current French erotic thriller that’s been picking up five-star reviews and which I went to see for my birthday. It was quite a present.
The story – one of social intrigue, moral ambiguity and brazen man-on-man rumpo – revolves around a secluded, idyllic gay cruising spot in the South of France on the edge of a man-made lake, where man-made men of all ages routinely spend the day sunbathing, swimming and chatting, often nude, as a springboard to sexual acts in the undergrowth. Notwithstanding the thriller element, it paints a utopian picture (all the better to be shattered by the thriller element). The sun glistens off the water. Blue skies gradually fade to cool evenings. There is ample car parking. Nobody seems to have a job to go to. Consenting adults get to know each other on towels, or not, and partner off, while others simply loiter in the bushes and watch.
For a lifelong heterosexual who was ostracised as a “poof” in his teens for dressing effeminately and warned off hanging out with actual gay men by his parents as it was interfering with his A-levels, onscreen portrayals of this sort of “scene” – ritualistic, understood, honest, practical – always fascinate me, I cannot lie. All the bullshit that goes with heterosexual courtship is refreshingly absent. Although most of the men in the film are fit, buff and handsome, some are older, fatter, and less idealised looking. Some are single, some are not. Most use condoms, others play a riskier game. It’s the perfect milieu into which to introduce a less controllable danger: that of murder.
Outside of the thriller aspect, which recalls some of the more generic tropes of Plein Soleil and its English remake The Talented Mr Ripley, with more literal recent echoes of Jane Campion’s Top Of The Lake, and even The Returned, Stranger By The Lake is notable chiefly for being the latest 18-certificate film to blur the borders between simulated sex and real sex – that is, frank, explicit, non-simulated, and thus by most people’s definition “pornographic”. The sex we’re used to seeing onscreen, even in “sexy” films, is clearly all artful, choreographed bump and grind, and elevated to gentle titillation by soft focus, tantalising editing, orgasm acting and a saxophone. The sex herein involves erect penises and ejaculation. There, I’ve said it.
The screening of Stranger By The Lake we attended was in Soho and on a weekday morning. I specify “we”, as all other patrons in the cinema were singles, and male, and – dare I generalise? – of a certain age. Not young men. This was an 18-certificate showing of a film. Not a porn movie in a porn cinema (although I’m sure Old Testament Daily Mail moralists would have a thing to say about its content). And yet, as specified, it contained images of strong, real sex. Which you don’t get on the telly, not even in the background on True Detective.
As unfashionable as it may be to say it, I’m not partial to porn. I actually get more out of one of those faked, edited, saxophone scenes in 18-certificate movies, albeit briefly. I have no great desire to see people “do it” for real. But many do and they are better served in this regard than ever before. So is it wrong to pay money to see Stranger By The Lake for reasons on titillation? No. This is a healthy desire, albeit one perhaps better served at home. Because a lot of the film comprises people sitting on towels and talking, often about very little of import. If it were porn, it would be quite annoying.
As a film, I think it’s quite brilliant. Singular, atmospheric, cool, disturbing; elliptical and sometimes unclear in terms of what’s going on, but of a piece with the naturalistic way it’s shot and acted. Director Alain Guiraudie holds his nerve, and the recurring fixed shot of the car park is a brilliant, evocative way of showing the passage of days. Pierre de Ladoncahmps and Christophe Paou are captivating as the younger, more innocent, smooth-skinned tourist Franck and the older, more hirsute alpha male Michel, respectively. It is their relationship – essentially sexual, but with emotional benefits – that drives the story. And although you think you see them have “strong, real sex”, the more real bits are performed by body doubles. Even actors who are prepared to go full frontal are not necessarily up for going all the way.
A similar sleight of hand, or slight of genital, occurs in Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac Vol I and II, a diptych that really impressed me when I saw a preview of it in January – both films back to back, a four-hour sex marathon – and which I would recommend if you’ve enjoyed his previous work (particularly the first and second parts of this, Von Trier’s loose “trilogy of depression”, Antichrist and Melancholia). It’s surprisingly linear, telling the self-loathing life story in flashback of the fearless Charlotte Gainsbourg’s sex addict. Each “chapter”, adorned with symbolism and cod-Freudian analysis, touches on a different aspect of her sex life, from virginity-shedding to sado-masochism and beyond, and there’s a good deal of what looks like “strong, real sex”.
And guess what? It’s not Shia LaBeouf or Charlotte Gainsbourg’s parts you’re seeing going into each other, or being spanked or sucked. It’s the parts of some porn actors, which have been seamlessly edited or digitally composited into the action. (See also: the astonishing Blue Is The Warmest Colour, which also apparently involved full prosthetic vaginas that the non-porn actors were strapped into. It’s amazing what they can do these days.) Although some of the sex – particulary between LaBeouf and Stacy Martin playing the young Gainsbourg – borders on conventional, if not quite Hollywood, and its pretty torrid, but I would still steer you away from Nymphomaniac if it’s titilation you seek! Much is seedy and disturbing, not least the scene where two African men have an argument over Gainsbourg while standing there naked and erect, like swordsmen. (That is, disturbing in the men’s attitude to Gainsbourg – which, to be fair, the character has masochistically brought upon herself – but also quite a sight if you’re not used to seeing men with erections banging around in front of them.)
Coincidentally, Pierre de Ladoncahmps from Stranger By The Lake, the non-hairy one, reminded me of Patrick, the lead gay man in Looking, HBO’s simply adorable new comedy-drama about life on the non-heterosexual side of San Francisco, just coming to the end of its first season on Sky Atlantic. More education into the way things work within the gay community in America’s gayest city. (I loved San Francisco the moment I set foot in the place back in the early 90s and fancied myself as quite local on a two-week stay there.) Patrick, played with puppy dog charm by Jonathan Groff (whom I don’t even remember from Glee), is far less aggressively gay than his two companions, the experimental Agustín and the seasoned Dom, in that he’s yet to be seen in a bathhouse and only in leather as fancy dress, and I guess he acts as a “way in” for hetero viewers. But the show does not shrink from its sexual preference. It could be about any firm friends in any city and their lives and loves, but many of the “issues” are gay-specific. I love it.
I think I was bound to; one of its founding writers and directors is Andrew Haigh, the openly gay British filmmaker whose second film Weekend I only belatedly caught on Film4 this year. It’s as fetching and raw and irresistible as the reviews said at the time of its release: simply, the whirlwind 48-hour romance of two men in Nottingham, whose relationship is concertinaed by the fact that one of them is leaving for America on Monday. (Just as the talented Haigh would, ironically.) It’s nothing like as sexually explicit as Stranger By The Lake, but it’s still frank and unabashed, and once again depicts the mechanics of “encounter” culture – what the cool kids in America have now dubbed a “hook-up”, I do believe: sex without strings, something women are now permitted to admit to pursuing. (Imagine!) This bypass of traditional courtship is again refreshing and confusing to a Victorian gentleman like myself.
Although it is simply beyond my understanding how anyone could regard a same-sex relationship as any less valid or meaningful or natural as a bi-gender one – I mean, really, are we still debating same-sex marriage and the equalisation of rights in the 21st century? – I do seem to have been exposed to a lot more gay cinema and TV of late, and my reaction to it is bound to be different to the reaction of someone gay, lesbian or transgender. Heterosexuals: we’re like the fourth emergency service!
Dallas Buyers Club is an Oscar-stamped film about the gay community, set at a time when it was under attack not just from Bible-bashing moralists and the ignorant but from a new virus, too. Matthew McConaughey’s real-life Texan protagonist is super-straight and in his bones homophobic, and his shifting attitude to the likes of Jared Leto’s male-to-female transgender, HIV-positive drug addict forms the heart of the story. It is essentially a heterosexual film about homosexuality, and, like Patrick’s “soft” gay man in Looking, McConaughey’s conflicted cowboy acts as a bridge into another world.
I grew up in the 70s, when gays were figures of fun in entertainment, and little more. Thankfully, come the 80s, when my politics started to harden, gay storylines became de rigueur in soaps and entered the mainstream. The terror of AIDS served to either confirm or wash away prejudice. The tabloids continued to treat homosexuality as something that must be “confessed” by celebrities right through this progressive decade, and homophobia is still horribly rife among certain knots of men. But much progress has been made. The Sun still objectifies women and reduces anything complex to single syllables and capital letters, but you don’t sense that the simple act of being gay is the news story it once might have been.
All that said, I wonder if some of the five-star reviews from heterosexual critics for Stranger By The Lake – mine included – are borne out of solidarity as much as out of dispassionate critical consensus. A willfully contrary, negative review of Under The Skin at the weekend called it “misogynistic” for its male gaze upon the Hollywood body of Scarlett Johansson, and yet – without giving too much away – it’s the men who are presented as victims, not to mention meat, in the film. They appear completely naked, while she generally gets to keep her bra on, and are apparently priapic, although the light is low and my failing eyesight meant that I didn’t even spot that their members were erect! Maybe I’m just getting used to them?