Those of us who have sex in public places have seen people kill each other or ask to be killed and have done nothing. We return to those places where crimes of neglect are being committed and we keep fucking, some of us without protection. All of us are witnesses to atrocities and still we keep fucking, ignoring the horrors inflicted on others.
About twenty minutes into Stranger by the Lake, Alain Guirauidie’s film set entirely in a cruising ground on the shores of a lake, and in the woods adjacent to it, I paused the movie to jerk off. It was that sexy. I don’t watch porn, but L’inconnu du lac turned me on. Maybe it was just Pierre Deladonchamps‘ body. Maybe it was the sound of water.
For a large chunk of my adolescence I lived near a nudist beach and went there often after school to have sex with men. I was sixteen, but there were boys younger than me, and men much older than us who had sex with us, got us to fuck them. In my twenties I regularly cruised a park by the beach, not a big park in a not very big city, so that there was also a social element to being there. Many of us knew each other, had slept with each other, and sat on benches at night and had conversations. In summer we’d go down to the beach and swim naked after midnight.
Stranger by the Lake took me back to that time, those transitional years between sex and safer sex, and there was something about the Michel character (Christophe Paou) in the movie, the guy with the seventies moustache that made me think of those years, the time before AIDS was the arch assassin and our greatest fear was to hook up with someone who’d beat us up, murder us in our own home. Michel was from that time.
Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) is the young man you meet in the sauna who doesn’t want to fuck with condoms, who wants you so much that he’ll let you fuck him just like that, sans protection. And you – I – was like that once, years ago on the beach, in the park.
In a hamam in Istanbul recently, a hamam that was built about 500 years ago, I saw men fucking without condoms. I saw a young man – he couldn’t have been more than 21 – lie back in one of the steam rooms and let men fuck him while others stroked his head, while he leaned against another man. I watched an older man fuck another man, and when he was finished fucking him, he came and put his cock in the young man’s arse. It was like being in some twisted nightmare.
I met a Tajik guy in the hamam who asked me to fuck him. At first I thought he was French.
“Nobody fucks with condoms here,” I said. “I don’t have a condom.”
“If you don’t come inside,” he said. “Then it is okay.”
“That’s bullshit,” I said.
“No,” he reassured me. I was the ignorant one! “It’s okay.”
This was not about barebacking. This was lack of information, the absence of it. This was a world in which the lives of gay men were expendable as far as the state was concerned, as far as we were concerned. And if it was my responsibility to do something, I did nothing. I couldn’t imagine ever going back to the hamam, but two days later I went back.
Maybe all life is about repetition. For those of us who are promiscuous maybe even more so. And there is beauty in repetition, beauty and comfort and an element of expectation, a longing for stillness, in the way Alain Guiraudie (the director) creates a film out of repetition: the arrival at the parking lot, the walk through the woods down to the shores of the lake, the greeting of friends, the conversations between Franck and Henri, simple exchanges infused with longing and despair and kindness and vulnerability. And the swim. Always a little different and yet always the same.
We want to look. We are compelled more by the naked bodies than by the horror of the murder. We want Franck to keep coming back, for him to have sex with Michel. We like the thrill of danger, that moment when you pick someone up in a park and wonder if this is the one, is he the stranger who’ll pull you to the bottom of the lake.
On one level the film is so simple, a series of repetitions, and yet there is something profound about it, too. It’s a story about desire and purpose, about depression and community, about responsibility and nature, about human nature, about the things we’ll do so as not to feel alone, the things we’ll do to feel desired. It’s a deeply arousing film, intensely claustrophobic in a vast open space. And because it is so specific, so local, it is – and I hate using this word – universal. It is about what goes on amongst gay men, and about all of us in the city, and about us as we witness what is happening in the Central African Republic, in Syria, in Egypt.