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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 she can raid 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. Daniel, played by Joe Alwyn, is as hardbitten as Trish, though naive about politics. 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 also 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 would rather take a moment to burnish details of the worlds they create or find ways to visually and sonically mirror the characters' emotions than rush from one plot point to the next.
Accordingly, this is not the nail-biting saga of a crusading reporter getting swept up in a conspiracy, or risking death on a battlefield in hopes of winning a Pulitzer, nor is it a hothouse "love in a chaotic place" film with overtones of a thriller or 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 sort of thing anyway, much less to set the story in the '80s. So she set it in the present, updated the political and atmospheric details, and let the Covid-19 precautions that her crew experienced on location become part of the texture.
The result is a contemporary character study of a young American woman hustling in a foreign land. Trish is smart, cynical, and tenacious, in the manner of a grifter dame in an old Hollywood drama. When Daniel tells her she's drunk, she says, "Would I be sitting her with you if I were even the littlest bit sober?," a line that could have been snapped off by the young Bette Davis. But she is also broken and drifting towards oblivion. And so is he.
This is a film about immature, brittle-souled, eloquent people who drink and have sex and move through real places and occasionally stop to savor them. It clocks in at two hours and seventeen minutes, and the pace is such that you could 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.
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