Alain Guiraudie's Stranger By the Lake

Critics Academy member Greg Cwik gives his take on the raw portrayal of sex in two NYFF51 movies, Blue Is The Warmest Color and Stranger By the Lake.

The New York Film Festival has rarely shied away from challenging, pervasive films–films laced with emboldened, often licentious provocations and imagery; you may recall a little film called Last Tango in Paris, which cast a vile stigma over butter long before the anti-saturated fat movement. But this year's lineup offers the most protean selection of “sex films”–films with the, ahem, balls to treat sex and sexuality in earnest, as thematic and aesthetic devices, as lenses and scalpels apt for self-vivisection—in the festival's 51-year existence. Unlike, say, a 1980s slasher film, in which young girls with big, fake, heaving breasts run, naked, into the outstretched, knife-wielding arms of masked madmen simply to create friction in teenage boys' jeans and thus sell tickets, these films have something to say about sex, and their depiction of sex says something about all of us.

Of the myriad films exploring sex at this year's festival, two stand out as being particularly Promethean—seminal, a less mature writer may say—in their depiction of sexual identity: Stranger By the Lake and Blue is the Warmest Color. Both were decorated at Cannes, and not without reason: they're viscerally discomforting, emotionally disquieting sketches of souls entangled, and self-realization manifesting in sexual awakening. These two films aren't about sex, they're about love, about growing up, of which sex is an inexplicable, ineffable part. 

Alain Guiraudie's film Stranger By the Lake is a portrait of tranquility abraded and corrupted by lust. The film subverts western notions of gay cruising, incises societal understandings of emotional attachment. Its characters submit and dominate; they love, they lust, and they learn, perhaps the hard way, the difference between the two. 

Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), a thin and boyishly pretty young man, frequents a lake sheathed in the thralls of a rural French woods. The lake is a cruising spot–a central location to which gay men can go for detached flings, casual fucks. They leave their emotions at home and try out a rotating coterie of partners, often in the same afternoon, swimming in the serene body of water, tanning in the sand, sucking each other off in the woods. The film is, to put it mildly, delineated, but it quickly establishes the purpose of its calmly graphic nature with static, unflinching shots of naked men lounging, legs up, talking about blow jobs, or dinner, or mythological lake monsters. Guiraudie (who won Best Director honors at Cannes) isn't trying to shock us, or desensitize us, or objectify men; he's treating nudity casually, normally, as is the inherent state of nudity.

Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue is the Warmest Color

Franck strikes up a friendship with a mostly-straight man named Henri (Patrick d'Assumcao)), with whom he discusses the nature of sex, of friendship, the synapse between love and lust and the fleeting nature of both. Henri is suspicious of the buff, handsome Michel (Christophe Paou, who won Best Mustache honors at Cannes), who sort of looks like the sexy-sinister love child of Freddie Mercury and Magnum P.I. and with whom Franck has “fallen in love.” 

The placid narrative is pervaded by shots of un-simulated sex—what may be referred to as “payload shots” in a less classy film—and threaded with a murder subplot that eventually ties Franck's insecurities about the fleeting nature of love with the fleeting nature of life. Ultimately, Franck is more afraid of being alone than he is of dying. 

Fear of being alone also permeates Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue is the Warmest Color, a revelation of sexual awakening. A young girl named Adele (Adèle Exarchopoulos) finds herself curiously attracted to one of her friends at school, with whom she shares a fleeting moment of intimacy, and starts to realize she may be gay. She subsequently meets a fine arts student, with a vibrant shock of blue hair, at a gay bar, and slowly begins her proverbial awakening.

Kechiche's direction is stunningly simple, almost banal, comprised mostly of close-ups shot with a wide-angle lens; instead of creating emotions, the camera captures them, lets them unfurl naturally. He puts a tremendous amount of importance on his actresses' faces, allowing his camera to hover over them as they kiss, as they eat, as they stare off, lost in their own cranial catacombs. Innocence and secrecy converge on Adèle face, her lips always slightly parted as if an overflow of secrets are threatening to spill out, her eyes glazed with tears, glistening in a brilliant splendor, throbbing with pain. Her confusion and sadness are daubed in quietude. Once we get past a certain point in the film–the last time we see her genuinely happy—her lips seem to curl down deeper and deeper, like a wilting flower. 

The film has earned notoriety for its long, “graphic” sex scenes, but decrying the sex for being pointless or unnecessary, for objectifying women, or writing it off as high-brow soft core is silly and misguided. Kechiche films the scenes with detachment, devoid of passion or romance, without floridity. He lets the camera portray the act in un-manipulated lucidity, leaving in the violent grabs and smacks of hands on thighs, the uncomfortable sounds of flesh slapping flesh and mouths sucking at each other. Essentially, he's showing us two people having sex not filming a porn, not performing for a camera. Sex is icky, sex is weird—you're swapping body fluids with another person–and denying that would be unbecoming of such an honest film. That they're both women isn't the sole point—they're two humans who have fallen in love, and who will inevitably fall out of love. The sex scenes become shorter, the actresses grabbing and slapping less and with diminished intensity, as the film goes on. The first fuck, clocking in around 7 minutes in length, is reflective of Adele's impassioned first time; the last time Adele tries, and is turned down, she looks pathetic and desperate but not unknowing. 

Watching Adele struggle with her feelings, her romantic and sexual identity, feels like peeping, but in a profound way: peeping at her emotional unfurling–what Melville called the ubiquitous blooming of lotus of the soul. If windows are the eye to the soul, Kechiche lets us get up close and catch a glimpse inside, however briefly.