Trish (Margaret Qualley) is a journalist whose press card is being revoked and her stay in Nicaragua compromised, and her way of making ends meet involves cruising hotel bars, stealing hotel amenities, and occasional sex work. She is savvy, stubborn, and has managed to wrap herself in the culture of decaying, heavily policed surroundings in a rather impressive way. As a result, she can be of indispensable help to the fish-out-of-water Brit, Daniel (Joe Alwyn), whose arrival in Nicaragua ties him to a big petrol-seeking investment. Flashing his dollars around in a country whose people can only circulate black market cordobas as a currency, he would seem the white savior. Far from it, Alwyn’s Daniel is nonplussed, surprisingly shy, and has a romantic streak he often fails to express – that is, until he picks up Trish and spends a night with her in his fancy hotel room. So starts Claire Denis’ newest feature, Stars at Noon, and her second festival entry for 2022 following the Berlinale premiere of Fire.
The script came into being after a long process of retracing the trajectory of Denis Johnson’s Nicaraguan-set novel of the same name, and for the adaptation, Claire Denis was joined by her High Life (2018) collaborator Andrew Litvack and writer-director Léa Mysius. Eventually, the political situation in the country forced the crew to relocate to Panama, abandoning the hope of faithful realism and instead imbuing the spaces present with the script’s intensity. While the novel takes place during the 1980s civil war which provides an unkind backdrop to the romantic affair, the film plucks its characters from that particular setting and into present (pandemic) days. Instead of decontextualizing, this move highlights the absent-minded magnetism that brings Trish and Daniel together in the first place.
Stars at Noon was marked by compromises in the production stage, but it only benefits from accumulating those unrealized possible worlds. Denis’ astute takes on colonialism and globalism provide an undercurrent of urgency which mirrors the abstract imperative governing the central love story. Eric Gautier, who also shot Fire, opted for a particular kind of wide lens to bring a beguiling gravitas into the center of the frame even if the spread promised by the CinemaScope ratio turns out to be an illusion. With extreme close-ups of faces and bodies colliding, Gautier’s camera jerks and trembles as it maps out the contours of this new love. The couple enjoy a sensuous feast while the world around them crumbles and in the way their individual harshness softens as their bodies blur reminds one of the sumptuous Vendredi Soir (2002).
Whoever asks of Claire Denis’ protagonists for either pure reason or premeditated decision-making, will always be at loss. Trish and Daniel are no exception to this roaming canon; people falling prey to their yearning for primal intimacy in a gesture of disregard for the world around them. This is why chemistry is beyond the point – Qualley’s snappy Trish may have no mutual ground with Alwyn’s detached Daniel, but the act of coming together already makes them seem like the last two people on Earth. A critical urgency is to be found there, nested in the chasm between their ardently consumed love and the impossibility of mutual salvation. As the narrative unfolds, the thriller conventions a’ la Denis bring out the sharp bite of a love affair steeped in political unrest and however much you seek it, there will be no resolution: as in matters of the heart, so in Claire Denis films.
This film is from the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. Stars at Noon will be released in the U.S. by A24.