Laughter Around the Corner

in 13rd T-Mobile New Horizons International Film Festival

by Błażej Hrapkowicz

Even the most experimental, non-linear, non-narrative cinema needs a structure. It can be an anti-structure, destroying every possible convention of storytelling cinema; it can be a purely visual structure with no story, plot or characters. However, there has to be a backbone to hold and convey a filmmaker’s ideas, feelings, impressions. The thought of having something grand and revolutionary to say is dangerous and should be scrutinized — what exactly do I have to tell the audience, how do I want to tell it and is it actually anything remotely interesting?

T-Mobile New Horizons has discovered many fantastic directors over the years. It is still the best festival in Poland and among the best of my personal experience. Carefully shaped around the original taste of its organizers, Roman Gutek’s enterprise brings the best and most daring artistic ventures in contemporary cinema to Poland. What’s interesting about this year’s edition is how the bravest and richest films blended the conventions of artistic and genre filmmaking.

The obviously experimental pieces — with the exception of Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s impressive, if slightly overlong Leviathan — often turned out to be unbearable exercises in self-indulgence (Manuela Morgaine’s four-hour Lightning ranking among the most extreme examples). Directors nodding towards genre, but remaining auteurs at the same time, found an appropriate structure for their out-stretching imagination.

The prime example of this approach is Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake (L’inconnu du lac) — the winner of FIPRESCI prize. Set in one location (the eponymous lake) and featuring only a handful of characters, Stranger by the Lake incorporates recognizable arthouse language, with static camera work, sparse and precise mise-en-scene — as well as tight editing, which gives the well-focused narrative a steady pace. Guiraudie slowly exposes and describes the small world of a beach serving as a cruising zone for homosexuals. Lying naked on the sand, characters look like merchandise on display, ready for pick-up and immediate consumption. Through poignant visual language, laconic but meaningful dialogue and perfectly executed moments of silence, Guiraudie establishes basic rules of conduct in terms of communication between characters — both verbal and non-verbal.

If one wanted to argue against the commonly-held view that genre structures diminish artistic imagination, Stranger by the Lake can be advanced as persuasive evidence. After setting up the major themes and motifs of his film, Guiraudie changes the direction of his narrative towards thriller, and therefore shows how the genre can move ideas forward rather than turn them into clichés. The sense of imminent danger that prevails till the very end of the film helps the director to tell a story about erotic attraction and its very close relationship with death drive. Eros and Thanatos are very much the patrons of Stranger by the Lake, where lust and fear work together to create enormous tension.

The way Guiraudie handles this tension is somewhat similar to Sam Raimi’s method. The director of The Evil Dead (1981) has repeatedly stated that horror and comedy are very much two sides of one coin. In Stranger by the Lake the subtle, yet very suggestive undertone of terror is beautifully combined with delicate pastiche. Guiraudie’s sophisticated sense of humour never turns into mockery — not only does it not destroy so carefully built tension, it also makes the film more profound and perversely enjoyable. We are not allowed any comic relief, but we can feel the laughter lurking around the corner. And we can certainly feel the frissons it provides.

Edited by Neil Young