Striking, beautiful, and stark as its lakeside setting, Stranger by the Lake is a stunning minimalist erotic thriller that explores with arresting photography and economical use of dialogue how human identity is defined, and sometimes imprisoned, by our desires, drives, and passions.

Unfortunately, given our tendency to pigeonhole films according to their ethnic or sexual themes, too many viewers, even arthouse fans, will give this picture a miss: French director Alain Guiraudie's Hitchcock-ian murder mystery not only has graphic sexuality, the sex is decidedly gay.

Stranger by the Lake, which earned Guiraudie a best-director prize at Cannes, features Pierre Deladonchamps as Franck, an even-tempered young man looking for true companionship in all the wrong places, including the titular lake, a bucolic provincial watering hole where gay men meet daily to swim and sunbathe and hook up.

Franck's attention is caught one day by Henri (Patrick D'Assumçao), an overweight, physically unattractive man twice his age. An oddball at a place where everyone hangs out in the buff, the fully clothed Henri always sits on the periphery, looking on with longing.

While Franck forms a deep bond, a true friendship with Henri, his sexual attentions are devoted entirely to another young man, the mysterious Michel (Christophe Paou).

Things turn sinister when Franck witnesses from a distance Michel kill another man. Was this a deliberate murder? An accident? Like Franck, we simply can't tell what happened: We see the event in a hazy long shot, from a distance that renders everything uncertain and unstable.

Guiraudie sets the entire film at the lake, its rocky beach and the sparse forest that surrounds it transforming the locale into an isolated space hermetically sealed from the rest of the world.

While the men always are making vague plans to go out on the town, we only see them at the lake. It's as if each time they show up, they are stepping into another dimension separate from their real lives. A murder and the threat of an investigation bring the real world crashing in.

While he traps us in a single location Hitchcock-style, Guiraudie manages with gorgeous camera work to give each scene a rare immediacy and freshness.

He transforms an apparently simple plot set at a single location and told with sparse dialogue into such a resonant, multilayered work.

Stranger by the Lake ***1/2 (out of four stars)

Directed by Alain Guiraudie. With Pierre Deladonchamps, Christophe Paou, Patrick d'Assumçao. Distributed by Strand Releasing. In French with subtitles.

Running time: 1 hour, 37 mins.

Parent's guide: not rated (male nudity, graphic sex acts, language, some violence)

Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse