Movie goers lately have left the theaters with question marks in their minds. Endless discussions on the way to post-movie dinners or on the F train about ‘so did she or didn’t she‘ have kept on going until eternity. Besides considerably more experimental foreign films such as 2011’s A Separation from Iran or Israel’s 2012 Oscar contender Fill the Void, more mainstream films such Shame or very recently Prisoners left the door slightly open to spare some space for the audience to fill.
Besides underlining the value of the art of film making and storytelling by minimizing the common perception that films are just a bunch incidents piled up to keep the audience entertained, open-ending films give the opportunity for each viewer to claim some part from the film as theirs.
The latest example of the “sorry this is where it ends” technique is Strangers By the Lake from France. The film follows Franck, a good looking young man who is a regular in a cruising spot located on the edge of a lake during the summer. As Franck constantly visits this lake and the woods that surround it to find random hook-ups, he befriends Henri who is not a part of this cruising world but still a constant visitor of the lake. Franck cannot help being drawn to the charm of another young man, Michel, even though he sees him drowning his then lover in the same lake one night.
The rest is a sexually charged and intensely choreographed thriller with subtle storytelling; so much that this mellow tone helps those few thriller scenes strongly stand out by giving a Hitchcockian vibe. Reminiscent of Dial M for Murder or Rope in which the horror is only placed in a few scenes, making them all the more horrifying, Strangers By the Lake also values these short but intense scenes. Unlike Hitchcock however, the director Alain Guiraudie uses zero music and very few traces of modern urban life except some old model cars, giving a feeling of timelessness and naturalism. The fact that the actors are nude almost throughout the whole film adds to this naturalist feeling (interesting note: the actors that are playing the lake-goers are all credited as les naturalistes at the end of the film).
Strangers By the Lake raises the question: does an open and ambiguous ending really serve a thriller? When I first got the impression that this is was it and the credits were going to show up, I said “oh no!” Risking sounding conservative for a second: doesn’t the resolution stand out as a main component in a film that prepares the audience to that final clearing of events? While the film carries some common elements of the suspense thriller genre such as the characteristic detective that serves as the Greek chorus against the others or the ever shifting moral dilemmas of the main character, its drive to be authentic is perfectly visible.
The film elaborately strolls around the classic and the experimental until the end however when it comes to making a final decision, it hesitates. After murdering both Henri and the detective in simply ten minutes, Michel goes into the woods to find Franck. This scene that also marks the end of the movie reaches to a final with the image of Franck hiding from the terror Michel caused. At this point seeing Franck as the tragic victim of his uncontrollable desires or the unlikely hero of his own dilemmas would be a much more glorifying end to the whole plot.
Leaving the ending open is a part of its goal to be genuine, for sure. Unlike dramas, however, thrillers raise bigger expectations for a disclosure and are also structured in a way that this wrap up will come in the end. When it doesn’t like in Strangers By The Lake, doesn’t the film cut off its own tail, both metaphorically and literally?