There are a bunch of observations you could make about this film upon watching its first half-hour, and then there’s a bunch of stuff that comes later on. Most obvious is that the setting of the film, by the lake of the title, is the film’s only location. The dialogue sometimes mentions things that happen elsewhere, but for the most part, these characters’ lives are defined by the time they spend sunning themselves on the rocky shores of this French lake in summer, enjoying one another’s company in the wooded area behind, and pulling into and out of the car park off the main road. The other early observation is that the characters are all gay men and spend most of their time entirely naked, to the point where the film’s signature shot has the camera positioned near the water’s edge, looking up at these men as they lay back and check one another out. But it’s just one of the repeated shots that suggest a languorous mood of possibility — which becomes one of threat as the film progresses.
The film centres on Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) who has not been around in a while, making him perhaps the initial ‘stranger’ to this lake. He strikes up a friendship with the lumpen Henri, sitting off at the edge of the action, while keeping his eye out for someone, being drawn particularly by the enigmatic, moustachioed Michel (Christophe Paou). So very languorous is the atmosphere the film creates that when the central dramatic event does occur — the twilight drowning by Michel of his moody partner — the extreme long shot single take framing of Franck’s witnessing this event is drawn into question by his subsequent lack of action, as he falls further into a complicit sexual relationship with Michel. If it’s a murder mystery, the mystery is not in who committed the murder, as in why Franck does nothing about it (quite why Michel did it is never really addressed). We end up wondering (perhaps like the character) whether it wasn’t all just some kind of dream in the halflight of the twinkling water, and what each of the characters know about the others.
In the end, it’s a film about the ‘unknown’ of the title. All the characters — Franck, Michel, Henri, the police inspector who shows up towards the end — are strangers, to us as much to one another. There’s a dangerous aquatic creature lurking in the lake that characters make passing reference to. Rigorously repeated shots of the limited locations, always shot from the same vantage points, render even the terrain strange and unsettling. Most of all, there’s the characters, their feelings and their actions, opaque right up to an ending in the inky blackness of night, which — as I’ll hope you’ll appreciate is in keeping with this theme — is perfectly apposite. It’s an accomplished mood piece which lingers in the mind.
Director/Writer Alain Guiraudie; Cinematographer Claire Mathon; Starring Pierre Deladonchamps, Christophe Paou; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at Shortwave Cinema, London, Saturday 1 March 2014.