‘Stranger by the Lake’ Director Alain Guiraudie Is Back at Cannes with ‘Miséricorde’ — Gay Angst, Onscreen Penises, and All

Alain Guiraudie is back at Cannes with a bittersweet and unexpectedly warmhearted dark comedy about latent homosexual desire, “Miséricorde.” Remember, the French writer/director is the filmmaker behind the 2013 perverse gay classic “Stranger by the Lake,” a simmering and sinister cruising tale about how our drives toward death and sex are of the same flesh. “Miséricorde,” debuting in the Cannes Premiere section, is a decidedly lighter-on-its-feet (in all senses of the idiom) story of a lonely and faithless man’s obsession with his dead former boss, who’s also the father of the childhood best friend he maybe once loved.

When Jérémie (Félix Kysyl) returns to Saint-Martial, a provincial village nestled in a wood in Southern France, he immediately bonds with his former boss’ widow, Martine (Catherine Frot). Is it romantic obsession, or projecting a mother figure upon her? Or is Jérémie really in love with her dead husband, and so she’s now the replacement? (IndieWire shares an exclusive clip of the film below that will tell you something about their twisted dynamic.)

More from IndieWire

Meanwhile, Martine’s now-grown son Vincent (Jean-Baptiste Durand), is jealous of Jérémie and his mother’s relationship and may see it as a betrayal of their childhood friendship. Circumstances go awry, disappearance and murder are introduced, and Jérémie attaches himself to a geriatric bishop (Jacques Develay), and an unlikely bond, or at least a confidence between them, blooms. We won’t spoil the details.

“Stranger by the Lake,” this is not. That film traded in graphic, unsimulated gay sex onscreen to peel back the self-destructive layers, with Hitchockian precision, of an affair between a handsome, sullen cruiser and a mustachioed murderer straight out of Tom of Finland. In fact, as Guiraudie explained to IndieWire, “Miséricorde” is his “first film without an explicit lovemaking scene in a long time” — though there is an erection briefly flashed onscreen played for laughs, but that’s also oddly sweet in context.

“At the age of 60 — well, I’m not quite 60, but nearly — I’d like to say that this film was sort of made on the strength of what I would call teenage fantasies,” Guiraudie told IndieWire, via translator, at the Cannes Film Festival. “Well, the idea of falling in love with the mother of one’s best friend or the father of one’s best friend. You have this whole image of desire and eroticism as it is linked to religion that based from childhood or teenagehood.”

As for Jérémie, Guiraudie insists he’s an unreliable narrator of his own story who tells a lot of lies. What is he leaving behind when he arrives at Saint-Martial? “It is really a case of him hiding his homosexuality. He keeps it a secret because he thinks it won’t be accepted,” he said. “So in terms of Martin and his relationship [with Martine], you have this notion of him wanting to sleep with her, but at the same time to make love to her. In fact, in French you used the same verb you means both to sleep with and to make love to, and it is a theme that often is deeply linked and bound up with homosexuality. It’s this homosexual desire to have a relationship with a mature woman.”

STRANGER BY THE LAKE, (aka L'INCONNU DU LAC), from left: Christophe Paou, Pierre de Ladonchamps, 2013. ©Strand Releasing/Courtesy Everett Collection
‘Stranger by the Lake’©Strand Releasing/Courtesy Everett Collection

How does Guiraudie feel about not being in Cannes competition this year? “Stranger by the Lake” won the Queer Palm out of Un Certain Regard in 2013 and his follow-up, the even weirder story of a queer filmmaker forced to raise a child, “Staying Vertical,” competed for but lost the Palme d’Or in 2016. His 2022 film, “Nobody’s Hero,” premiered in Berlin.

“Obviously, it was a bit disappointing [to not be in competition], but then I thought things over and I said to myself, well, what’s really important is to be in Cannes. [The Premiere section] is wonderful in terms of the connection,” he said.

And as for life after the sensation of “Stranger by the Lake,” he said, “I’ve never had so much money to make the next film [‘Staying Vertical’]. It was extremely well-financed, and I like the idea of people having expectations. I sort of play around with this idea of what after ‘Stranger by the Lake’ people would expect of me.” So it goes with “Miséricorde.”

As for that aforementioned erection in the film (we won’t ruin it for you), Guiraudie said, “I think it’s intentional on my part” to bring explicit male nudity and desire back to screens that usually lack them. “I think it’s important to show the desire, and in the case of a man, it’s very practical. You can see it. It’s very evident. … Why not show it?”

Guiraudie added that he’s been routinely asked to edit graphic nudity and sex out of his movies when they travel to other countries, but with “Stranger by the Lake,” he refused. Had he neutered “Stranger” at all, it would be an utterly different film.

Here’s an exclusive clip from “Miséricorde,” which premieres soon at Cannes and is currently seeking U.S. distribution. Les Films du Losange handles international sales.

Best of IndieWire

Sign up for Indiewire's Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.