Margaret Qualley shines in Claire Denis’ elusive Grand Prix-winning thriller set in Nicaragua
Dir: Claire Denis. France. 2022. 135 mins
Claire Denis has considerable form playing with genre (Trouble Every Day, Bastards, High Life) but has never made a legit genre movie as such. The indeterminacy continues with Stars at Noon, which – with its Central American locale and English-speaking stars – feels at first as if it’s going to be her most conventional work, but proves as elusive (almost verging on nebulous) as anything she’s done. Thoroughly eccentric, Stars at Noon comes across as a French auteur film pretending to be an erotic character drama pretending to be a political thriller. The result – something like a female-fronted version of Antonioni’s The Passenger - isn’t likely to entirely satisfy anyone in either the arthouse or mainstream camps. But if taken as an oblique tropical reverie, the film definitely has pleasures to offer – not least an oddball but often riveting lead performance by Margaret Qualley.
Denis builds her world to atmospheric effect, although she seems interested in mood and erotic energies at the expense of all else
Glimpses of masks and Covid-19 signs alert us from the first that Denis isn’t playing straight with this adaptation of ’The Stars at Noon’, the 1986 novel by the underrated Denis Johnson set during the Nicaraguan Revolution of 1984. The Panama-shot film is still set in Nicaragua, but takes place today – mobile phones and dodgy Wi-Fi connections feature heavily – and you’d need a strong knowledge of Central American politics to determine whether this narrative even remotely makes sense in terms of the region right now.
Be that as it may, Qualley plays a woman apparently called Trish Johnson (also the credits list all characters by their roles, rather than names), a journalist working in the country – although as she’s never seen writing, she’s about as plausible a reporter as Tintin. Perpetually low on funds, and in danger of having her papers and passport confiscated, she’s been getting by selling her sexual favours to an elderly Vice-Minister (Stephan Proaño) and a local officer, Subteniente Verga (Nick Romano). One night, in the bar of a hotel considerably classier than her own run-down digs, she meets a smooth-talking white-suited Englishman, apparently named Daniel de Haven (Joe Alwyn), who is in town with a delegation from an international oil company.
She offers to sleep with him for $50, but she’s clearly attracted to him at the start, slipping off her sandals at first approach and commenting, “She’s a little wet,” (actually a comment about her insufficiently strong cocktail). Before long, numerous steamy sessions in both parties’ hotels seem to be turning into mutual amour fou.
But politics – local and global – turn up the heat further. The business associate Daniel is meeting (Danny Ramirez) is actually, Trish warns, a Costa Rican cop, and the Englishman proves to be in big trouble, for obscure reasons. As things get increasingly more dangerous for the duo, they decide to skip to the Costa Rican border, where a bumptious, smiling American (Benny Safdie) seems to know their movements inside out – although so does pretty much everyone they meet.
The most interesting aspect of the film is Qualley’s character, a wayward, sexually upfront woman, vulnerable behind a carapace of self-protective cynicism, seemingly desperate and out of control, and yet who knows the score and the survival tactics better than anyone else around. Qualley limns the character intriguingly, mixing a hard edge with a strange waif-like nerviness. By contrast, Alwyn never comes across as much more than a smooth-spoken, suave and oddly unflappable hunk, and the pair, even in their sweaty moments, have precious little chemistry.
The script by Denis, Andrew Litvack and Léa Mysius, herself in Cannes with her new feature The Five Devils, never quite convinces as a coherent thriller – although Denis Johnson’s plots can be wilfully byzantine – and has an odd way of shuttling unpredictably between Spanish and English, the latter sometimes spoken for no clear reason by the Nicaraguans. It’s also odd that, in the streets of a largely deserted, military-patrolled city in the run-up to all-important elections, Trish appears to be the only journalist in town, or even in the whole country – although a very pissed-off magazine editor (an amusing John C. Reilly), to whom she tries to pitch a travel piece, barks at her, “Admit to yourself you’re not a journalist.”
It’s regrettable that the film shows scant interest in any of its Latino characters, many of whom are treated simply as disposable game pieces (a lively exception being the testy motel owner, a brittle turn by Monica Bartholomew). And the sense of jeopardy is considerably undermined by the fugitive couple’s sometimes absurdly casual reactions to outbursts of sudden death. Otherwise, Denis builds her world to atmospheric effect, although she seems interested in mood and erotic energies at the expense of all else – Eric Gautier’s photography superbly mustering a sense of oppressive dampness, and capturing the magic of dense rain in deserted yellow-lit streets.
Regular Denis soundtrackers Tindersticks do their distinctive stuff, with music (including a Latin-styled theme song) written by Stuart Staples and Dan McKinna.
Production company: Curiosa Films
International sales: Wild Bunch International, firstname.lastname@example.org
Producer: Olivier Delbosc
Screenplay: Claire Denis, Léa Mysius, Andrew Litvack
Cinematography: Eric Gautier
Editor: Guy Lecorne
Production design: Arnaud de Moléron
Main cast: Margaret Qualley, Joe Alwyn, Benny Safdie, Danny Ramirez