Confusion Is Sex: Alain Guiraudie’s Queer Spaces of Desire

It doesn’t take much sleuthing to discern the queer content wending its way throughout the cinema of Alain Guiraudie. A working pair of eyes and ears will do just fine, and even those four accessories may not all be strictly required. However, if we understand queerness to refer to considerably more than gay and/or gender non-normative sexuality, then we could perhaps describe a more thorough queer attitude within Guiraudie’s films, one that maps instabilities and provisional identities onto filmic space. This space is very often literal, in the sense of the diegetic zones Guiraudie maps out and articulates in his films – for example, the closing-down iron works in Ce vieux rêve qui bouge / That Old Dream That Moves (2001), for example, or the cruising areas of both Le roi de l’evasion / The King of Escape (2009) and L’inconnu du lac / Stranger By the Lake (2013). In many respects these physical zones of activity are also negotiation spaces where gay male sexuality (for the most part) is territorialized, in the midst of the larger heterosexual world. In fact, the characters in Guiraudie’s films very often behave as though heteronormativity doesn’t exist as such, or at least that it is not something with which one needs to be overly concerned.

But more than this organization of space within the worlds he creates, Guiraudie also generates something we might call a queer psychometric space within his films. This has everything to do with cinematic grammar, and the ways in which this grammar is flexible and often flouted in order to produce spaces that are articulated according to the measure of desire(s), rather than the conventional rules of narrative construction. In more basic language, we could say that Guiraudie “queers” diegesis. This is observed in its most gloriously anarchic state in Pas de repos pour les braves / No Rest For The Brave (2003). A film that explicitly engages with dream states and the possibility of double-lives as lived through the Unconscious, No Rest could be said to be aligned with Surrealism, particularly in the respect that Guiraudie constructs “the dream-work” as cinematically coextensive with any “normal” diegesis. That is, waking life and dream-irrationality are both presented as material entities, depicted with the same degree of cinematic objectivity. Although some elements of the film are more notably whacked out than others (e.g., the scene in which protagonist Basile disembarks from his broken airplane and enters and open-air saloon, whose patrons loudly jeer him), there is a definite lack of baseline reality. In this regard, Guiraudie invokes the classical Surrealist art cinema of Luis Buñuel, as well as the movement’s latter-day exponent David Lynch.

Still, Guiraudie is offering something extra, something defiantly queer in his Surrealism. This is in part due to a particular turn in the film’s treatment of the psychoanalytic theory of desire, the Freudian linking of the Sex and Death Drives. In No Rest, Basile is split into two figures, each with different narrative trajectories. (Unlike, say, Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, however, they do not remain distinct from one another.) Basile moves from Livington to Deadsville and goes on a killing rampage, while as “Hector,” he is the tender boyfriend of older man / Deadsville resident Roger. Basile believes that if he falls asleep, he will be killed by a demon known as the Faftao-Laoupo. He therefore claims that he can dream without sleeping, which is what he must do to survive.

Several interesting premises follow from this, which not only explain certain tendencies in No Rest, and its underlying principle of queerness, but also provide touchstones for thinking about Guiraudie’s broader cinematic project. First off, we have something in common with Basile, whether we want to or not: “dreaming without sleeping” is basically the cinema, and it is only through the cinema that Guiraudie is able to weave Basile’s waking dreams and multiple identities into a time-tapestry that we can share. This takes us into the dark of night, where we see Basile commit coldblooded murder. At the same time, throughout the rest of the film we see Basile’s friends and lovers subject to death and violence, at which point he wakes up in a new situation. That is, Basile’s desires, unconscious though they may be, are the omnipotent engine that drives spatial articulation (and disarticulation) in No Rest For the Brave. It not only splits off diegetic space into different identity zones. It restarts and reshifts events in order to protect loved ones. Even though the final third of No Rest becomes rather straightforward and linear by comparison (the Johnny Got drug heist / gangster story), Basile even manages to bring Johnny back, after the end credits, from certain death.

To clarify, I am referring to No Rest’s Surrealist maneuvers as a queering of space not just because it is driven, in part, by gay desire (in this case, Basile’s relationship with Roger, and his homosocial bond and possible crush on Johnny Got). Rather, I use the term because Guiraudie is promoting a radical instability of cinematic space and language, both within and outside the diegesis. What’s more, this instability is the result of the pressure that desire exerts on the language of film. No Rest For the Brave is much more than a whimsical depiction of sleep deprivation. It is a work of cinema turned inside-out by the dangers of sexual and emotional need, in the form of a character who has ostensibly renounced the treachery of the Unconscious (no sleeping). What results is a psychometric, rather than a naturalistic space, a set of shifting zones and fields in which Basile squares off against his fears and desires. Guiraudie’s innovation is in allowing his character to be an active agent of his desire, to re-form his world again and again. The “director” is enfolded into the diegetic space.

What I describe at work throughout No Rest For the Brave is a spatial energy that activates Guiraudie’s cinema as a whole, in different but equally vital ways. As I mentioned above, That Old Dream That Moves uses the layout of a decommissioned factory in its death throes to enact certain queer moves. Spatially, the rusted out foundry is both imposing and permeable, a structure that slices architectonic forms from the earth and sky but also blends interior and exterior into a kind of bleeding all-over locale. This serves to emblematize the end of industrial labor, as well as the tense but eventually genial commingling of workers, management, and itinerant labor. But above all, That Old Dream combines workers’ relations with gay cruising, conjoining political affiliation with the negotiation of gay desire.

In a similar vein, Guiraudie queers both business affiliations and the very notion of gay identity in The King of Escape. The main character, Armand, is a 50-year-old tractor salesman whom we first meet as he becomes embroiled in a dispute over trade territories. Eventually, quite by chance, he ends up in a sexual relationship with the 16-year-old daughter of his sales rival. Guiraudie is clearly working to push the boundaries of acceptable behavior in this film, and King of Escape rather unequivocally asks its viewer to sympathize with Armand. This is accomplished in large part by the skillful articulation of spatial boundaries throughout the film. The police wall off the village’s gay cruising spot. Armand is forbidden from seeing Curly or even finding out why her family keeps her locked up. And eventually, he is forced to wear an electronic sex offender bracelet. Even Curly enforces barriers, not only refusing to let Armand have anal sex with her but also berating him as a “faggot” for trying. 

Armand and Curly are only able to break through the physical and sociological barriers when they are high on a natural fruit-based upper called “Doo-Root.” The root allows the two lovers to outrun police helicopters, evade search parties, avoid roadblocks, and essentially master the countryside with inexplicable speed. It is also an aphrodisiac. That is, somehow Armand and Curly are able to take the root, stop and fuck in the forest, and still evade capture. Again, this is an example of Guiraudie queering the scene, submitting diegetic space to the rule of desire. With the Doo-Root as a kind of stimulant / MacGuffin, the outlaw lovers can control the narrative space, until such time as Armand chooses to relinquish it. Eventually, Armand stops taking the drug and ends up leaving Curly for a four-man polyamorous situation (which includes the police detective who had been investigating him). Nevertheless, Armand’s decision (and he explicitly declares it a decision) to go from gay to straight desire results in a shift in spatial command; when he shifts again, to gay polyamory, a new set of terms emerges.

Finally, in Guiraudie’s latest and most elegant film to date, Stranger By the Lake, the organization of queer psychometric space is streamlined to a keen minimalism. With a visual style that combines the sun-kissed sand and bodies of David Hockney with the darker psychological landscapes of Eric Fischl, Stranger By the Lake is characterized by a shoreline, a meeting of forest, beach and water. Each of these locales serves as a transition point and as rhythmic punctuation throughout the film, with a repeated master-shot of the parking area (where the forest gives way to the sand) operating like a pivot-point between sequences, a kind of period-cum-capital-letter.

But these locales are more than formal delineations of space. They are the exact coordinates with which Stranger’s characters, and Guiraudie, map desire within the film. The forest is the space of sexual engagement; the beach is the cruising / scopophilic zone, with lonesome, self-isolating figure Henri sitting out on the far left of the beach / screen. And the lake itself is the space where physical exhaustion (and desire) gives way to mortal danger. In the most basic Freudian sense, Guiraudie has spatialized desire, with the beach as the buffer zone (and the narrow strip of civilization / camaraderie) between the Sex and Death Drives. So when Franck, the protagonist, experiences lust for Michel, the mystery man, this is both complicated and electrified by his scopophilic gaze (from the forest to the lake, bypassing the zone of ethics and morality), where he witnesses Michel drowning a lover with whom he has grown bored.

In a way, Stranger By the Lake is a reduction of Guiraudie’s queer /psychometric space. As opposed to a film like No Rest For the Brave, which uses both the dream-work and a diegetic shape that is multifold (or, to borrow a term Derrida often applies to textual action, “invaginated”), this latest film can appear quite straight-ahead both in its narrative organization and its spatial articulation. This in itself might give pause to longtime Guiraudie supporters, concerned that the director’s least surreal, “straightest” narrative film is the one that has won him greatest favor to date with critics and festival programmers (if we can consider a film with hardcore anal and oral sex, plus a graphic cumshot, to be “straight” cinema). However, in truth Guiraudie’s queering of space has in fact expanded to become a universal principle in Stranger. Its three zones of activity situated atop one another like a tricolor flag. And the film’s spatial movement is governed by Franck’s sexual urges and romantic desires for Michel, his confusion in that desire (as an admixture with horror), and his platonic love for Henri. All space in Stranger By the Lake is queer. Guiraudie offers no objective diegetic metric for the viewer; the total area of the film, and all its shifting subzones, can only be understood through the vicissitudes of desire. Although this is mostly articulated by Franck’s conflicting drives, eventually Michel struggles to dominate the forest, the beach, and above all the lake. The filmic space of Stranger By the Lake is rendered unstable (and thoroughly queer) not only by gay desire or the conflation of Sex and Death, but by an unresolved battle over the power to enunciate and to articulate space itself.

To this day, “queer film” is used as a term merely to signify LGBT content in the cinema. Part of this has to do with the conjunction of liberation efforts and the rise of gay cinema in the 1990s, of course. But more than anything this misunderstanding is the result of a failure in film studies, which has yet to fully grapple with the queer theory of the last twenty years. To queer cinema, as an active verb form, would imply among other things a formal intervention into the conditions of representation. This does not seem optional. Whether drawing on the Surrealist possibilities of aligning cinematic diegesis with the workings of the Unconscious, delineating zones of transgression or radical sociality within the larger social sphere, or simply unfurling the mechanisms of queer desire as the all-in-all of cinematic and diegetic space, Alain Guiraudie has created a body of work that exceeds the limits of mere gay representation. His films depict and in fact generate fields of activity, queer spatial zones, which allow for a dialectical co-exercise of bodily desire and the disintegration of staid structural boundaries. Guiraudie has renewed the modernist interpenetration of forms. Getting lost is sexy again.