SAM: Stranger by the Lake, the tenth film from French filmmaker Alain Guiraudie (who won the Un Certain Regard‘s Best Director prize at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival; the film was also awarded the Queer Palm), is a mesmerizing exploration of all-consuming lust in the face of morality. The setting is a glistening lakeside locale where gay men can lay nude across the sand and have casual sex in the surrounding woods—an open slice of freedom and tranquility for a culture that is often admonished by society. Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) is a frequent cruiser who seems confident and amiable, immediately forming a new friendship with a heavy-set and forlorn man named Henri (Patrick D’Assumçao), who is divorced and exploring his capacity for companionship and desire in new ways. Franck sees Henri as little more than good conversation, and it’s quickly discovered that the real object of his affection is the much younger, mustached Michel (Christophe Paou). Yet, just as Franck’s infatuation seems to be deepening, he secretly witnesses his crush drown another man in the lake. Rather than go to the police, Franck pretends as if the act never occurred, and he continues—and eventually succeeds—in his pursuit of the highly unstable Michel.

This is the point where Guiraudie’s film turns menacing and suspenseful (even in its invariable languor and beauty) as the director adds in a speculative detective who wanders around the beach inquiring about the pair’s relationship and their connection to the murder. Henri, who plays the lonely voice of reason throughout most of the film, is becoming more taken with his new friend, but Franck rejects his advances to continue his torrid affair with Michel. The sex in the film is indeed explicit, but its graphic depiction serves a refreshingly important role: these passionate encounters are not in service of some tossed-off provocation; rather, they are important in deliberately mapping out the psychology and fervorous emotions of the characters. Guiraudie’s film is so captivating precisely due to these considerations, and it easily transcends the many portentous narratives of similar works without compromising its mystique and strange power.

SPENCER: The film’s mystique can at least be partially attributed to the uncanny quality of its atmosphere, as the stunningly precise script produces a naturalistic tension of behavior instead of contrived suspense. Working within the spatial confines (à la classical theater) of a single location, Guiraudie evocatively constructs his setting with careful camera placement and repetitive editing, which lends the viewer a familiarity of the environment while affording the director a contained space he can fill with people and manipulate with gradual changes. Without resorting to cleanly drawn types, the beach cruisers each embody a different kind of desire—as Guiraudie insists on desire’s capacity to manifest not only in forms such as friendship or lust, but in other more complex ways as well. Exploring how these men and their desires interact, especially in the context of marginalization, is Guiraudie’s foremost aim here (even the overall thriller/mystery framework takes shape as a result of these concerns). The characters in Stranger by the Lake, even the minor ones, never seem less than human, and it is in their individual expression of wants and needs that Guiraudie locates his movie’s provocative core.

If you’re in Toronto, the film starts its theatrical run there tomorrow playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.