Claire Denis dominates the balance of tenderness and civil restlessness in Stars at Noon, a sweaty and dreamlike political thriller.
This year, we have been receiving one gift after the other, at least film-wise. From returns from acclaimed directors after years of absence (Chan-wook, Field, Cronenberg, Polley) to filmmakers delivering two films in the same year, we have been blessed in 2022. One of those filmmakers to deliver two features this year is Claire Denis (Beau Travail, No Fear No Die) – one of the best-living French filmmakers. She has blessed us this year even more by directing Both Sides of the Blade, which was released a few months ago, and now, Stars at Noon, an adaptation of Denis Johnson’s novel of the same name. Interestingly, both of Denis’ films this year have won significant awards at the festivals they played in – the former won Berlin’s Silver Bear for Best Director and the latter Cannes Film Festival’s Grand Prix – and they got rocky reactions in their respective premieres. Her latest work, Stars at Noon, is quite a fascinating yet weird project for many reasons.
Firstly, she’s working with source material instead of her usual original scripts. In addition, constant casting changes took place in production because of busy work schedules of the actors, and the location was also moved from Nicaragua to Panama due to the pandemic. So many challenges almost broke production in half, but Denis still managed to make her film. As a big fan of her work, I was really excited to see this one, even if it was met with cold hands and pans. There are moments in Stars at Noon when Denis struggles to completely handle the source material, since the 1986 novel is quite hard to manage, and she wanted to update it so it could have a modern flair. However, Denis still handles it with total panache as she delivers her flair and touches with ease on themes previously covered in her other features, like postcolonial perpetuities, power struggles, intimacy, fractured bonds, and the exploration of our bodies. It is a delightful and genuinely captivating escapade of two young, entrapped souls yielding themselves to the environment of violent political frenzy.
The film centers around Trish (the excellent Margaret Qualley), an American journalist who has had her press card revoked, causing her to stay in Managua, Nicaragua, to be extended without her approval. Trish was reporting on war crimes occurring in the country before authorities seized her passport and changed her dollars into local currency, which is quite useless when trying to buy a plane ticket. She has been searching for methods to make ends meet since the cash is slowly running low and amenities are scarce. One of the ways in which she tries to get some money is by the occasional sex work: in one of the many classic lines of the film, she’s described by a local as a “North American prostitute drifted who drinks like an Apache”. The cigarette smoke and rum haze leave her in a state of disorientation, not knowing when she will be able to go home, and, as the days go by, her life turns into an even more tangled mess. Although Trish is occasionally stubborn, she’s pretty savvy.
The lengthened stay in Nicaragua has heightened Trish’s street smarts and strengthened her armor of self-preservation. She blends with the culture and her surroundings quite well. One day, as she goes to the Intercontinental hotel bar, Trish meets a dapper Englishman named Daniel DeHaven (Joe Alwyn). He’s a British emissary for an oil company engaging in the local economy and election in a way that isn’t precisely explained; that part of his story is kept under wraps at all moments. All we know is that he has special forces on his back, tracking his every move.
Both Daniel and Trish have some secrets of their own, which rouses the mystery and thriller elements of the story. This has the film in a constant dreamy stupor infused with the heat of the Nicaraguan weather and their rapidly building romance. However, their lives are about to take yet another turn as a Costa Rican cop (Danny Ramirez) and a CIA agent (Benny Safdie) are getting closer to taking down DeHaven. Without any help from the higher-ups protecting them from the police and corrupt government, the newly forged couple goes on the run to find a way back home.
In her adaptation of “Stars at Noon,” Denis switches the 1984 civil-war setting for a modern COVID-19 pandemic one: masks, vaccination cards, and PCR tests are present. This present-day modernization of the source material’s setting is a means to contemporize the novel while remaining true to Johnson’s vision of a very specific world that’s head over heels, and creates narrative devices that generate a powerful effect of isolation and impatience.
That’s the same sensation I felt when watching Erik Skjoldbjærg’s 1997 feature Insomnia: sleeplessness is always present, and gets more persistent as the story keeps unfolding. With her usual ambiguity, tenderness, and civil restlessness, Denis provides us with what her version of a mystery conspiracy thriller would look like. And it is entirely entrancing. She implements some of Peter Weir’s ways of forging stories about strangers in even stranger lands (The Mosquito Coast, The Year of Living Dangerously) with some of Antonioni’s arthouse aesthetics, more so in the likes of The Passenger and Zabriskie Point.
If we were to compare it with some of her previous work, Denis’ latest shares the most similarities with the Isabelle Huppert-led White Material, a tale about a woman being a trespasser in her environment revolving around a French woman who owns a coffee plantation in Africa, a land where she thinks she could subsist off. Yet, as time passes, she starts to notice that she isn’t in control of what may come of her plantation; the hierarchies of power and corruption are way above her standings.
The colonialism underpinnings in its story are similar to what Denis wants to explore in Stars at Noon, but Denis doesn’t want to follow the same steps as she did in the past; she doesn’t want to tell the same story. So, she chooses Denis Johnson’s story, which, on the one hand, has a sense of urgency amidst the erotic ardor of the unpredictable couple because of its takes on colonialism and globalism. On the other hand, it also contains several elements present in Denis’ filmography, such as the longing for solidarity.
To add to that mystery, Denis leaves many details and plots to the viewer’s imagination, even though one may sort of know what exactly is going on by looking at the background and sensing its atmosphere. She’s more concerned with exploring colonialism through the eyes of doomed lovers who fall in love, even if (deep down) they aren’t a right fit for each other.
There are moments where it feels they are in purgatory, as if they were the only two people left on Earth: they find love amidst rum-soaked hopelessness, but they would rather go home at last. Stars at Noon can be categorized as a political thriller of some sort, but its core is mainly centered on what will happen two these two lost souls and their primal intimacy rather than the corrupt forthcoming election.
Denis and her writing team (Andrew Litvack and Léa Mysius) don’t want to be subtle about this constant swinging between the two plot strands, with stilted yet magnetic dialogue that entrances the viewer into its hot and heavy surroundings. Some lines may cause chuckles, but it is never wholly risible. Nevertheless, Claire Denis maintains tonal control, which is one of the reasons why it doesn’t fall apart.
The other main reason the film succeeds is the actors’ dedication to their performance and the script. Margaret Qualley in particular is enchanting and captivating, delivering her best performance to date. In the hands of another filmmaker, Stars at Noon might have been a different film, one that probably wouldn’t have contained the balance of tenderness and hopelessness that Denis’ filmmaking has. It is a steamy escapist drama combined with a dreamlike romantic thriller, and, although its runtime may be a little bit too long, I loved what it brought to the table. A quote from the film can resume my feelings toward Denis’ latest work on its script: “Should we meet again? Again and again”. I found myself enjoying Stars at Noon more than I anticipated.
Stars at Noon is now available to watch in US theaters and on demand. The film will be released on digital platforms in the UK on 19 June 2023.