man on beach watches man on water
Posted on August 22, 2020

Stranger by the Lake and Subtractive Spectatorship

Elizabeth Erwin

With its minimalistic storytelling and melancholy dissection of loneliness, Stranger by the Lake is a quiet film that sneaks up on you and wheedles its way into your psyche. I first watched Alain Guiraudie’s 2014 masterpiece at the beginning of quarantine and months later, it has yet to fully leave my subconscious. The story itself is a deceptively simple one. Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), while frequenting a lake known to be a gay cruising site, befriends loner Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao) and falls in love with the murderous Michel (Christophe Paou). But this isn’t a film about plot. It’s a film about the horrific choices that can emerge from our extreme human need for connection.

Stranger by the Lake is marketed as an erotic film but that framing fails to celebrate how horror conventions, especially in relation to dread building, fuel the film’s atmosphere. Its deployment of Adam Lowenstein’s theory of “subtractive spectatorship,” in particular, is a fascinating reflection of how landscape can inform our readings of queer desire within the film. According to Lowenstein, “subtractive spectatorship” names “a desire to subtract or erase human beings from the landscape, to leave it empty,” and he adds that topographical camera shots of nature spur a desire in the audience to see the landscape depopulated. Lowenstein explored this paradigm in part through Mario Bava’s brilliant giallo Ecologia del delitto/A Bay of Blood (1971), and so the particular process of depopulation he described was the result of a killer systematically offing the human interlopers in clever and often aesthetically interesting ways. But that’s not the case in Stranger in the Lake.

Here’s the trailer for Stranger by the Lake:

Unlike the typical slasher, which sees its cast of characters, both pivotal and extraneous, mowed down through an assortment of creative kills, Stranger by the Lake leverages nudity as its initial means of subtractive spectatorship. When Franck first enters the beach, the camera pulls back to reveal that this is an environment populated by naked male bodies. Largely nameless and devoid not only of clothes but also of any distinguishing characteristics, these figures are not so much characters as they are bodies returned to their natural state. Almost exclusively fit and white bodies, these figures are explicitly homogeneous, a point reinforced through panning shots that render them no more unique than the surrounding trees. Because the bodies are prone and are positioned strategically so that there is never a cluster, they simply become part of the natural landscape. There is no need for a masked Jason to physically dispatch these characters because they never inhabit a space that is not specifically natural; they are never people, a point made on the film’s cast sheet that refers to them simply as “un naturiste.”

Even for the secondary characters, who inhabit the woods cruising for sexual partners, there is an overarching similitude that erases their humanness. Because these characters weave throughout the woods and come and go like the breeze that ruffles the treetops, the audience is never able to focus on them long enough to read them as unique. While this incorporation of random, undefined characters is often a means of generating higher kill counts in slasher films, characters in slashers are typically engaged in behaviors that read as vital to the human experience. In Friday the 13th, Barry and Claudette are only known to the audience through their murder, and yet the fact that that they are killed while about to have sex marks them as explicitly human. Similarly, in Bay of Blood, Countess Federica Donati is defined for the audience through her death, but she is also demarcated as identifiably human in her quest to escape her assailant. But most of the bodies that populate Stranger by the Lake are portrayed in ways that strip them of recognizably human behaviors. Even the portrayal of sex within the woods with its attention to the physicality of body parts over human intimacy is depicted as more animalistic than human. There is an emptiness to the landscape, despite these physical bodies, which is only countered by the presence of the cars in cutaway shots.

In this, approaching the film through subtractive spectatorship contributes to the film’s overall indictment of a homophobic thinking that views queer bodies only in relation to sexual acts and that is unable to see the humanness beyond the body–a position juxtaposed against the demonstrable care and affection exhibited between Henri and Franck. The film’s development of the protagonists’ emotional connection, particularly when contrasted with the strictly physical encounters surrounding them, positions them apart from the queer spectacle in which the film revels–rendering them as two people seeking to form a bond. Because the woods represent a space in which cravings (both sexual and murderous) are satisfied, it is telling that Henri leads Michel to the woods at the end of the film–an act that leads to his murder at the hands of Michel. Having expressed his emotional attachment to Franck by telling him that Michel has a “right to be jealous” of their relationship, Henri deliberately reveals his knowledge of Michel’s crimes. When Michel counters that the Inspector lacks any evidence to connect Michel to the crime, Henri decides to offer himself as a sacrifice. He draws Michel into the woods in the hopes that his death will save Franck. It is a physical offering stemming from an emotional connection and it reframes the woods as a space of love and not simply physical pleasure.

Franck (left) and Henri (right)

The film’s conclusion is as unapologetically morose as the rest of the film and finds Franck calling out to Michel even as he knows Michel’s reappearance will result in his own death. But Franck’s need for intimacy is so great that he is willing to lose his life for a few moments of the physical connection that he conflates with achieving a deep, human connection. The kicker, of course, is that Franck has already achieved true intimacy with Henri but he is simply too lost to see it. It is a biting indictment of the deep psychological fissures that result when the connections that make us human are lost. This moment also reads as the film’s final instance of subtractive spectatorship. Franck’s calling out to Michel, despite the implied danger, is a demonstrably human act that speaks to Franck’s desire to love and be loved no matter the cost. But the silence that greets him is as destructive as any slasher film kill. And it renders Franck no different than the trees that surround him. Having lost his chance to forge a connection to abet his pronounced loneliness, Franck is left an empty and stagnant addition to the natural landscape that surrounds him.

Stranger by the Lake is streaming on Shudder and Amazon:

Lowenstein, Adam. “The Giallo/Slasher Landscape: Ecologia Del Delitto, Friday the 13th, and Subtractive Spectatorship.” Italian Horror Cinema (2016): 133.


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