Stranger by the Lake, Porn Theatre, and the influence of cruising on film narrative

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Vittoria Scognamigilio and Jacques Nolot in Porn Theatre
  • Vittoria Scognamigilio and Jacques Nolot in Porn Theatre
One of the interesting things about Alain Guiraudie's Stranger by the Lake, opening at the Music Box this Friday, is that it's not just a movie about gay cruising, but a movie that seems to take its structure from rituals associated with gay cruising. The film proceeds as a sensuous flow of events, where characters enter and exit the story with surprising casualness. Most of them have come to the lakeside setting for anonymous sex, and so very few of the characters seem fixed in their identities. Our perception of them is always in flux. And as Drew Hunt wrote in November when Stranger played at the Reeling Film Festival, the setting seems like a character itself, conjuring an aura that makes this libertine behavior seem natural.

In these qualities, the film is a lot like Jacques Nolot's La Chatte à Deux Têtes (2002), which was released in the United States as Porn Theatre about a decade ago. When it came out, Nolot's film was overshadowed by Tsai Ming-liang's Goodbye, Dragon Inn, which had been released here not much earlier and also takes place in run-down movie theaters over the course of a single night (Jonathan Rosenbaum even described Porn Theatre as a "companion piece" to Tsai's film in his Reader capsule). Though Tsai's movie features scenes of gay cruising (as well as a similar narrative flow), it's not obsessed with the intricacies of cruising like Nolot's is.

Porn Theatre catalogs the sexual permutations between straight men, gay men, transvestites, and transsexuals, considering the specific emotional needs that are met by each one. These encounters are united by a powerful sense of place—there seems to be something about the theater itself that makes the libertinism possible. Like the lakeside of Guiraudie's film, the movie theater has an inviting quality that allows the men to transition comfortably from the outside world into a more private one. In a characteristic sequence, Nolot's camera drifts from the middle-aged, female box office attendant (Vittoria Scognamiglio), one of the film's primary characters, to follow a new arrival after he buys a ticket. We watch this burly blue-collar type enter into the bathroom and get into drag. He looks a bit like he's getting ready for work, buoyed somewhat by the comforting sense of routine.

The movie conveys an everyday poetry that normalizes its graphic sex scenes. Abel Ferrara's description of his own Go Go Tales (2007) seems applicable here: "This movie's like Killing of a Chinese Bookie meets Cheers!" Most of these characters have been coming to the theater for years. Some of them, like the box office attendant and a poet played by Nolot, are as attached to the place for its vibe as for the possibility of sex. As in Stranger by the Lake, this sense of community feels more fragile as the movie unfolds and the absence of other locations becomes more pronounced. All the characters are equally responsible for maintaining the atmosphere of the place, and in return they all share in it equally.

In its scuzzy way, it's a heartening film (those put off by the violence and dread of Stranger by the Lake might find this a comforting alternative)—not least because it paints such an affectionate portrait of an independent movie house. I have at least a few straight moviegoer friends who identify positively with Nolot's characters, and for reasons that have nothing to do with sex. The film's portrait of cruising dovetails with some bittersweet observations of how moviegoing can give structure to a life. At one point the 50-ish poet played by Nolot muses that he started going to the theater purely for physical pleasure, but now he also goes to remember his youth. Of course he can still experience pleasure there (and he does), but he can't do so with the same naive enthusiasm he had as a younger man.

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.

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