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Restricted to a lake and its boundaries, Alain Guiraudie’s “Stranger by the Lake” — one of the few gay films to win top prizes at the Cannes Film Festival — carefully and often brilliantly creates its own Eden-like universe.

Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) is a buff, gay vegetable seller who cruises the lake and is looking for something or someone to occupy the rest of his life. He befriends a chubby voyeur, Henri (Patrick d’Assumcao), who finds himself at a similar crossroads. They bond, though Franck is distracted by Michel (Christophe Paou), an amoral hunk who may have murdered his own lover.

The frequently nude sun bathers talk about having dinner and attending a happy hour, but we never see them leave the lake, which is both a homosexual paradise and a kind of prison. Women have been known to frequent the place, but we never see any.

Guiraudie rigorously keeps the widescreen images confined to swimmers, shady woods and the pretty, sparkling water that seems to envelop the central characters.

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The murder is portrayed in a particularly stark manner: an ambiguous longshot that keeps us guessing.

Was Michel playing with his lover or deliberately forcing the life out of him? Why does this not convince Franck that his infatuation is dangerous? Franck’s fascination with the proximity of sex and death becomes the source of much of the film’s Hitchcockian humor.

Warning: “Stranger by the Lake” is as sexually explicit as mainstream movies get. Some will call it pornography. Others will be impressed by the artfulness of veteran director Guiraudie’s approach, which rarely fails to find something interesting within what only appears to be a simple story.

John Hartl:

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