Two naked men are wrestling somewhere in the tall grass. This erotic confrontation will not remain unseen. Their silent companion is a chubby, harmless stalker, who enjoys touching himself while looking at others getting intimate. Or physical, rather. There’s not much intimacy at this cruising spot somewhere in the south of France. The rocky beach where everyone sunbathes, mostly nude, serves as a catwalk. Once a companion is chosen, it’s just a matter of time before they meet in the nearby woods amid muffled moans and a carpet of used condoms.
That’s where Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), a young, handsome man meets Henri (Patrick d’Assumcao), a middle-aged silent observer who’s obviously not from a generation comfortable with sexuality. Most of the visitors shed their clothes immediately, but Henri never does. People merge and he keeps his distance, not seeming to care that this makes him an outsider. There is no erotic tension between Henri and Franck, but a quiet understanding soon blossoms. Their closeness is platonic but deeper than the brief clashes of naked bodies happening in the nearby woods. Later, Franck spots Michel (Christophe Paou), a mysterious and hefty mustached man. There’s something unsettling about him, a sense of danger, but that doesn’t stop Franck from developing a strong, physical attraction that doesn’t stop even after he witnesses proof of Michel’s murderous instincts. His deathly urge to taste the forbidden is too fulfilling, too strong to resist.
French director Alain Guiraudie allows the chosen genre styles and structures to freely blend and merge. The transitions between thriller, comedy and romance are smooth, sometimes almost indiscernible. It adds sophistication — and a refreshing surprise factor — to the seemingly basic structure of the film. Conversations about a 30-foot catfish swiftly change to a dirty sex-talk, and subtle dark humor intersects with danger, the film’s ironic distance from its characters never standing in the way of an inquisitive, genuine look into their psyche. The tone fluctuates like sensations during intercourse, with pain and pleasure occurring side-by-side.
The obvious metaphorical underpinning of the film, with the whole symbolic order behind the figure of water and woods, is used in wisely dosage, never crossing the border of tackiness or intellectual snobbery. Guiraudie meticulously builds an on-screen reality that’s never frivolous. His vision doesn’t have the latex, whips, and frantic dance moves we remember from Friedkin’s Cruising, but there’s still an ever-present sense of danger, and the while the film brims with erotic tension it’s rarely erotic itself. Sex and naked bodies are presented in frank detail, complete with close-ups many might term pornographic, but the repetitive storytelling structure combines with thoughtful cinematography (the camera mostly stays low, a rather unflattering perspective) to create an experience that’s mesmerizing but never arousing.
Guiraudie lifts the classical cinematic – and western – distinction between making love and fucking. Here passion and obscenity are naturally woven into the act of sexual merging. Silence and repetition set the tone; almost every sequence starts with the same frame, a nearby sunlit parking lot slowly filling with cars. Images of sensual woods, rustling grass, blindingly bright sky and the still, mysterious lake are a constitutive part of the visual narrative. Guiraudie creates a sensation of monotony, as if time is passing despite no evidence of external change – it’s the inside of characters that’s evolving. The simple but ecstatically accurate mix of opposites — steadiness and vehemence, disgust and rapture, fear and desire — is what brings Guiraudie’s seemingly distant beach close to our own backyard.