Sometimes, I have to wonder which is actually more puritanical: when American movies depicting sex do it from a winking, peekaboo remove of carefully neutered inoffensiveness, or when European - by which I almost exclusively mean French - movies depicting sex in all its explicit, damp glory suggest that the only people having sex are soul-dead mechanical non-humans sublimating all their depression into hatefucking.

And so we have Stranger by the Lake, which freshens things up only in that the extremely explicit sex and damn near constant nudity involve gay men. The anhedonia and crushing cosmic alienation, though, are precisely the same.

The setting: an isolated stone beach separated from the world by a scraggly thicket of trees. This lonely patch of rock and water is the site of a cruising grounds, where a variety of lonely men come to doff all or most of their clothes, stretch out in the sun, and surreptitiously watch each other with expressions indivisibly mixing lust with hostility. Sometimes, they pair off for sex in the bare privacy afforded by the trees and tall grasses of the woods. Here, one sunny day, Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) arrives for the first time this season, hoping to find some companionship of either the emotional or physical varieties, ideally both; and one would not say, to look at the objectively hot Franck, that he could possibly have a hard time finding guys in a less godforsaken part of the world. Yet even with the clearly-defined value system of the cruising site, where the handful of extremely hot men are stared at by the more numerous pudgy, old, or simply unkempt men, Franck is isolated and untouched. The only person he makes any kind of connection with, at first, is Henri (Patrick d'Assumçao), an overweight middle-aged man looking like the world's saddest Gerard Depardieu impersonator, who idly claims that he's not gay, but simply enjoys the beach for its quietude. Which might even be true, after its weird fashion - the fascination and attraction that passes between Franck and Henri isn't apparently erotic in nature, though it is certainly profound.

Meanwhile, Franck has his sights set on Michel (Christophe Paou), a much more conventional hunk who already has a boyfriend, or at least a regular fuckbuddy at the lake. So while Franck trysts dispassionately with whatever mostly attractive men will have him, he still casts a handful of longing, fruitless glances Michel's way, and after a few days of this, Michel takes definitive action to free himself up: while swimming, he drowns his lover, which Franck witnesses. And Franck latches onto him immediately as the object of all his desire to be intimate, not caring in the slightest about the fact that his new boyfriend is a murderer at the very least.

This scenario has been described, rather reflexively, as "Hitchcockian", which doesn't fit at all, but that's not to say it doesn't have it's charms as a bleak erotic thriller in which the plaintive desire to love and to fuck is so intense that it outweighs even the most basic survival instinct. It is, above all things, a study of the sheer horror of disconnection and alienation, the sense of being surrounded by people and yet totally unable to connect or interact with them, of being trapped in rigidly defined routines that channel life into ever more narrow channels. In fact, for all its endless supply of dongs - floppy dongs, rigid dongs, dripping dongs - the key visual motif in Stranger by the Lake has nothing to do with its frank and fearless depiction of sex, its aftermath, and lingering voyeuristic nudity, but with the straitjacketed litany of angles it uses to show those things, or the constant return to the same angle of the parking lot where all of the men return to the exact same space every day to meander to the exact same patch of beach to stare at the exact same collection of bodies. It is a repetitive film, purposefully so, establishing the mechanistic quality of life (the gay cruising life, the life of all lonely people, the life of just Franck and nobody else) through images and editing as clearly as it possibly could.

There's enormous value to everything the film has going on, and yet it still left me more than a little dissatisfied; by design, it's the sort of movie where any ten-minute slice is virtually indistinguishable from any other ten-minute slice, save for the intrusion in the second half of the laconic police inspector Damroder (Jérôme Chappatte) who investigates with very little urgency the possibility that the drowned man might have been the victim of foul play. That's key to how it works, but it also means that we have a hell of a lot of identical slices, and along with the film's steadfast commitment to the idea that we are all isolated and unknowable - "stranger by the lake" describes every single character at every single moment of the 97-minute film - it leaves the film feeling more than a bit unyielding and schematic. Its superficial commitment to the dynamics of the thriller genre are so willfully undercut, by Franck's immediate knowledge that Michel is a killer, and then by the refusal of anybody at the beach to care much about the death within their tight niche community (it's kind of like a parable for AIDS in an alternate universe where gay men all hate each other and secretly want to die), that its impossible to accuse writer-director Alain Guiraudie of having made a boring or aimless film; it's pretty obvious that focused, ritualistic aimlessness is exactly what he was gunning for.

In short, I am convinced that Stranger by the Lake is perfect, in that it achieves exactly what it meant to. It portrays the world of casual sex and cruising with almost journalistic proficiency - every character in the world of the beach is sharply etched and has the tang of real life and close observation - and it diagnoses that lifestyle as the result and the cause of lonely people trying to connect at all costs, whether sexually or emotionally or in the strange post-sexual philosophical state that Henri (the real destabilising element in Franck's experience of the beach, not the murderous hunk) strives to achieve or has achieved. It depicts the free-floating lust, judgment, self-loathing, and furtive, innocent longing of its singular milieu with precision and even a little bit of sympathy. I confess that even so, I find it dreary. This setting could have been the focal point for a great many kinds of stories that didn't involve incidentally ascribing an unchecked death drive as part and parcel of queer sexuality. But then it wouldn't have been French, and make no mistake: this might be one of the most irreducibly gay films of recent memory, but it far, far more irreducibly Gallic.