The script, Christophe Paou says, was even more sexually explicit, so the French actor knew what he was getting himself into when he signed up for Alain Guiraudie’s film, Stranger By the Lake. Paou plays Michel, a handsome and charismatic man — with an extremely sinister side — who meets Franck, a younger man, at a cruising spot. Stranger By the Lake is one of two sexually-explicit films released this weekend, the other being Lars von Trier’s much-hyped Nymphomaniac, in which Charlotte Gainsbourg plays Joe, a sex addict. Both films use body doubles for the genital close-ups and the explicit scenes.
Nymphomaniac’s producer Louise Vesth said: “We shot the actors pretending to have sex and then had the body doubles, who really did have sex, and in post [production] we will digitally impose the two. So above the waist it will be the star and below the waist it will be the doubles.”
Gainsbourg said: “I was very, very nervous at first. I needed it to be very clear that actors were not going to perform sex. As long as that was clear, I was fine.” In another interview, she said: “The sex wasn’t hard. For me it was all the masochistic scenes [that were] embarrassing, a little humiliating. The blow job, the same thing, a bit humiliating too. Then having a prosthetic vagina ... two hours in the morning with someone working down there, that was the hard part.” Stacy Martin, who plays the younger Joe, said she made sure everything was agreed in advance — how much nudity there would be, a closed set, a body double, the use of prosthetics.
But still, the actors in both films seem to have been pushed further than in many sex scenes.
“If you have to hit somebody in the face for a film, you have to feel that you are going to hit him or her, but you don’t go that far,” says Paou. It was the same, he says, with sex: “We needed to feel love and desire.”
Paou was nervous about taking the part — deciding whether to do it or not was the most difficult part of the process, he says.
“I was wondering if I would be able to do it, because the script was very direct: ‘Michel sucks Franck,’ or whatever. You are wondering how we are going to do that.”
But once on set, he says, he was reassured. It was a small crew and there was privacy. He and Pierre Deladonchamps, who plays Franck, had a bit of time to get to know each other, and Guiraudie, so “we had been building that confidence together. We rehearsed for one week and chose together not to have sex [for real].”
Does he think Guiraudie wanted them to?
“Maybe he wanted to, but it’s not his way of working. He needs the actors, and himself, to be confident. I don’t know if ‘wanted’ is the word.” If he had that idea, says Paou, “he wasn’t very strong with it”. They tried acting with a prosthetic penis for one masturbation scene, but it didn’t work. “It was screwed onto a piece of metal. When I was moving my body, the false penis wasn’t moving.”
Body doubles — Paou calls them “stunt doubles” — were brought in for the explicit scenes, but unlike in Nymphomaniac, they were regular actors, not porn performers.
“Alain didn’t want to use pornographic actors because he wanted to keep the sensuality, the love story,” says Paou. “He was a bit afraid to have some guys who would have done it like in porn, which might [look] very mechanical.”