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Stars at Noon

Although "Stars at Noon" is set in Nicaragua during the very recent past, it's another film by legendary director Claire Denis ("Beau Travail," "High Life") that seems to have been time-warped in from the 1970s or '80s, when tough, smart, languorous, handsomely produced, frankly sexual portraits of fascinating but often unlikable adults got made and seen more than occasionally, and played in art house theaters just big enough to envelop the viewer with images and sounds. 

The movie was adapted by Denis and co-writers Andrew Litvack and Léa Mysius from a novel by the late Denis Johnson (Jesus' Son). The book was drawn from Johnson trying and failing to become an international political reporter in Nicaragua and Costa Rica in the early 1980s. The movie adaptation is typically described in articles and on streaming platforms as an "erotic thriller" or simply "a thriller." But as is so often the case with Denis' films, that's a misleading way to characterize, or even think about, what's actually onscreen, which is more of a vibe than a story, and all the more fascinating because of that choice. 

It's anchored by an understated, unstintingly honest performance by Qualley, who plays the heroine, Trish, a twentysomething writer. Trish describes herself as a journalist but apparently hasn't sold a piece in a long time, probably because her last sale was about politically motivated kidnappings and hangings in Nicaragua related to tensions with Costa Rica (the mainstream journalism industry in America isn't much interested in stories like that anymore—and barely ever was). She sells her body for money (and in one case, favorable treatment from a person in authority) and treats her neighborhood as an open-air series of opportunities, helping herself to sample bottles of shampoo from the bathroom of a man she's just slept with, pretending to be a guest at a fancy hotel so that she can feed herself from the complimentary breakfast buffet, and filching a roll of toilet paper from the ladies room and hiding it in her purse.

One of her trysts is with a handsome, well-dressed young British man (known only as The Englishman in the source book, but named Daniel here). She clicks with him more than she expected to, considering she met him in a hotel bar an hour before closing and offered to go to his room because she needed money and wanted free drinks and companionship. Daniel, played by Joe Alwyn, is just as much of a tough customer as she is, though naive about the political situation around them. Trish is convinced the country is falling into authoritarianism again (the elections keep being postponed and there are men with rifles everywhere), while he insists there are still good, idealistic people in government and things won't go over the brink. On the other hand, he says he works for an oil company, and Trish finds a handgun in his shaving kit, so who knows what's true—about him, or anything?

"Stars at Noon" takes its sweet time even sidling up to the barest hint of a plot; the first half-hour is just about Trish and her world and routine. Somewhere around the halfway mark, Trish sees Daniel having breakfast with a man who she knows to be a Costa Rican cop but represents himself to Daniel as something else. There's a lovely low-speed "chase" after that, with the man following Trish and Daniel in their taxi as rain pounds down on the car's windows and metal frame. Later, they go back to her hotel and there's a long scene that could be considered the essence of "Stars at Noon," in which Trish gives Daniel a little "tour" of her shabby room before they have sex. The camera stays in a fixed position for much of it, moving only slightly to keep the actors in frame, and we're given a rare (for modern cinema) opportunity to just watch people be who they are.

The tactility of the rain in the "chase" scene (it looks to have been spontaneous and real, a thing that happened) is very Denis. She's got her own specific worldview and interests—this film, like a lot of her work, is shaped by her experience growing up in colonial Africa and being aware from an early age of what happens when Western governments and corporations insert themselves into the politics of nonwhite countries. But she's also part of a group of filmmakers (along with such iconic directors as Wong Kar-wai and Michael Mann) who could be described as "sensualists," because they are obviously much more interested in detailing how their worlds look and feel, and with finding ways to visually and sonically mirror the characters' internal states, than hurrying viewers along to the next plot point.

Accordingly, this is not a nail-biting story of a crusading reporter caught up in a conspiracy, or in covering spectacular firefights or tank battles, nor is it a hothouse "love in a chaotic place" movie with overtones of the thriller or the spy picture, like "The Constant Gardener," "Under Fire," "The Quiet American," or "The Year of Living Dangerously." Denis didn't have the budget for that kind of thing anyway, much less to set the story in the '80s. So she imported it to the present, rewrote and updated the novel's political and atmospheric details, and let the intense Covid-19 precautions in Panama, which doubles for Nicaragua here, become an integral part of the texture.  

Qualley, who is at the center of every scene, joins forces with Denis to depict a young modern American woman in a foreign land, fumbling around trying to survive. Trish is smart, cynical, and tenacious, in the manner of a hardboiled heroine in an old Hollywood film, but she is also broken in certain fundamental ways, and nearly at the end of her rope when we first meet her. "You're drunk," Daniel tells her in one scene. "Would I be sitting her with you if I were even the littlest bit sober?," she replies, a line that could have been snapped off by the young Bette Davis eighty years ago. 

If you're looking for something other than what "Stars at Noon" actually is, there's nothing here for you. This is a film about young, brittle-souled, eloquent but somewhat sour people who drink and have realistic sex and move through real places and sometimes stop to savor them. It clocks in at two hours and seventeen minutes, and the pace is such that you could easily imagine an impatient viewer complaining, "Why do we need three minutes of the couple being flirty in a hotel room?" or "Why do we watch Trish walk slowly down a street, and why doesn't the director cut when she leaves the frame, instead of hanging onto the shot a bit longer to watch the stray cat crossing in the background?" That stray cat might be the key to appreciating what makes Denis special. Most of the characters in this film are stray cats, and she likes watching them do their thing.

Now playing in theaters and on demand and available on Hulu on October 28th. 

Matt Zoller Seitz

Matt Zoller Seitz is the Editor at Large of RogerEbert.com, TV critic for New York Magazine and Vulture.com, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism.

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Film Credits

Stars at Noon movie poster

Stars at Noon (2022)

Rated R for sexual content, nudity, language and some violence.

135 minutes

Cast

Margaret Qualley as Trish

Joe Alwyn as Daniel

Benny Safdie as CIA Man

John C. Reilly as American Boss

Danny Ramirez as Costa Rican Cop

Director

Writer (novel)

Writer

Cinematographer

Editor

Composer

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