At the end of the final screening of “Stranger by the Lake” at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, the man sitting behind me remarked, “So, watching soft-core porn at The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). That’s a new experience.” And my friend replied, “Wouldn’t be the first time at TIFF … even this year.”
While I wouldn’t call the skillfully directed and shot “Stranger by the Lake” porn – the multitude of sex scenes were key to character development and developing the eerie mood – it certainly had some of the most explicit and erotic sex scenes at the festival and probably answered any idle question you might have had about the mechanics of sex between gay men.
The film takes place on a gay cruising beach in France, which our very handsome, but very, very stupid protagonist Franck frequents daily in order to have a series of largely anonymous hookups. Everyone at the beach is looking, and everyone knows that the woods behind the beach is where the sex happens, including one libidinous man who always appears with his hand on his penis, ready to watch others in the act while he masturbates.
When one such hookup ends in murder, and the murderer, Michel, takes a liking to Franck, it’s only a matter of time before something bad happens. Unfortunately, Franck is so frustratingly dim-witted – the first sign being that he doesn’t seem to understand the point of using a condom when being promiscuous – that despite the many hints dropped in his lap that Michel is bad news, including even watching Michel murder someone, he is never able to pull off his rose-colored glasses, until, we suspect, it’s too late. Even the beautiful scenery and still more beautiful actors cannot redeem the sheer stupidity of the leads.
François Ozon’s latest film, “Young & Beautiful,” was also replete with sex scenes, but it worked because it was accompanied by a frank examination of adolescent female sexuality. We first meet Isabelle (the stunning Marine Vacth) just before her 17th birthday, as she takes care of losing her virginity to a convenient boy whom she doesn’t quite like. The sex is terrible – it’s all about him – and somewhere along the line, she finds herself deciding to become a prostitute.
Although it’s a dangerous thing to do, the audience can forgive her stupidity as a symptom of her youth, especially as Ozon’s film explores many interesting questions. If Isabelle’s experience with sex was never about her, are her encounters with clients really that different? At least with them, she has the advantage of not having to worry about their undesired emotional attachment to her, one of the burdens of sex with the immature men her own age, and even make some money. It’s not that the film condones prostitution or even suggests that she’s a prostitute because she likes sex. Instead, it explores the limited sexual options for a young and beautiful woman, who is always seen by men as a sexual object and yet expected to want to form an attachment to the very men who see her that way.
Twenty-five-year-old Canadian filmmaker Chloë Robichaud’s feature debut, “Sarah Prefers to Run,” which made its debut at Cannes, was masterfully directed, but the script allowed for too little character growth. The best thing about it was the one very frank and very awkward sex scene between the probably gay Sarah (Sophie Desmarais) and her smitten roommate Antoine (Jean-Sébastien Courchesne).
The two are from the same small town, and they decide to move to Montreal together to help support each other, as Sarah wants to run at McGill University and Antoine wants to try his hand at the big city. Because neither has any real source of income, Antoine suggests that they get married for practical reasons: They would then be eligible for government grants for married students.
They do, and it’s not long before Antoine starts to develop feelings for Sarah, and Sarah, it seems, begins to develop feelings for her teammate Zoey (Geneviève Boivin-Roussy). When Antoine and Sarah do finally have sex in their kitchen, she initiates it out of curiosity, just trying to make sure she really doesn’t like men. What follows is awkward and horrible. She puts her hand on his arm, and when he doesn’t respond, awkwardly withdraws. He puts his hand on her thigh, and then the kissing begins, only her hands are flailing, uncertain what to do with them. The camera holds on Sarah’s bored face as she wonders why she started this and stares off at the pots and pans, which we see through a shaky camera. It’s a perfect piece of acting and directing, capturing the awkwardness of sex without also being outlandish, as “Girls” tends to be.