Stars at Noon: Claire Denis trawls a hell less spellbinding with her American in Nicaragua

Denis removes the Sandinista-era setting from Denis Johnson’s political swamp story, and the sensual poetics from her style, leaving us with a direct yet indistinct study of political dread.

27 May 2022

By Nicolas Rapold

Margaret Qualley as Trish in Stars at Noon (2022)
Sight and Sound
  • Reviewed at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival.

“I wanted to know the exact dimensions of hell,” says the American in a hotel bar, explaining her hanging around Nicaragua’s capital city, Managua, with no steady job or love for the place. A journalist by trade, Trish (Margaret Qualley) doesn’t seem to have written anything of note since a glancingly mentioned report on kidnappings and other violence in the area. In Claire Denis’s Cannes-premiered adaptation of Denis Johnson’s The Stars at Noon, this character is transplanted from the 1984 Nicaragua setting of the book – a febrile swamp of corruption and violence under post-revolution Sandinista rule – to a vaguely defined present-day version of the country. Here Trish spirals idly right into the arms of the man in the crisp white suit, Daniel DeHaven (Joe Alwyn), a pretty British businessman.

Before continuing, I have to admit that the “dimensions of hell” line holds a totemic charge for me. It’s repurposed in the 1988 Sonic Youth song The Sprawl for a monologue by Kim Gordon, spoken in flat California affect somewhere between a voiceover read-through and a public reading. (“Does this sound simple? Fuck you,” Gordon continues, quoting, or channeling, more lines from the unnamed Stars protagonist, which also appear in the film.) So too has Denis’ work captivated me for years, from the suspension-bridge tensions of  L’Intrus (2004) to the perfect dance of Beau Travail (1998) to the familial caresses of 35 Shots of Rum (2008) to even the unspeakable horrors of High Life (2019) and Bastards (2013). Each film casts its own spell, slipping into a sensual rhythm of movement and editing on the downbeat.

Stars at Noon might seem to promise postcolonial longueurs of the sort we’ve seen before. Trish hustles to make enough cash to stay in a motel and in the country, sleeping with a government lackey or two to keep her papers current and maintaining a state of expat limbo that doesn’t seem especially escapist. DeHaven offers novelty, though there’s a spiritual shlubbishness to him that undercuts the possibility of sophistication. He also trails questionable entanglements with companies and governments that threaten to flush Trish out of her already precarious existence, no matter how wise she seems to be to the sinister forces (Nicaraguan officials, Costa Rican police, an apparent CIA operative played by Benny Safdie) that circle them (and especially her) in this environment of predation.

Qualley with Joe Alwyn as Daniel DeHaven in Stars at Noon

“You have the good manners that will get you killed someday,” Trish says to DeHaven, or hardboiled words to that effect, but Qualley and Alwyn aren’t in the throes of seductive intrigue here. Shooting in Panama for Nicaragua (for political and Covid reasons), Denis gives the characters a matter-of-fact present-day setting that may surprise anyone expecting a ready-made romanticisation of their predicament. Critical comparisons to 1982’s The Year of Living Dangerously (one of the spate of 1980s journalists-on-the-front-lines dramas that include the Nicaragua-set Under Fire with Nick Nolte) don’t entirely make sense in the film’s not clearly defined political setting (as with Denis’ 2009 White Material), but it feels all the fuzzier given the specificity of the novel. Even the cinematography (by Eric Gautier, a catalyst for signature films of the 2000s by Olivier Assayas and Leos Carax) tends toward matter-of-fact framing, after the opening portent of a fake palm tree.

For a Denis film, it’s remarkably short on evocative mood, in a way that seems to confirm a shift suggested by this year’s Berlinale premiere Fire and 2017’s Let the Sunshine In, where angst ultimately prevails over beguiling sensuality. The pairing of Denis and Denis (Johnson) must have been irresistible; the filmmaker said she reached out to the writer after reading his novel, and the two spoke before his death in 2017. Johnson’s book jitters along with the intoxicating audacity of its protagonist in what feels like stream of consciousness, keeping up a running profane commentary with impatient, playful street-savvy. Playing a survivor slowly running out of steam, Qualley doesn’t bring the same sense of hard-bitten experience as what leaps off the page, though one sees how Denis was attracted to her performance in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) as a free spirit drawn to dark forces. She and Alwyn inhabit a hell whose exact dimensions become only slightly more clear across the film, and which feels less lived-in and charged than other Denis portrayals of place. (Denis wrote the screenplay with Léa Mysius and Andrew Litvack, perhaps the preeminent translator/subtitler for Anglo film releases, working closely with Godard among others.)

For a filmmaker whose work has captivated through ellipsis and enigma, it’s a movie that asks us to stare more directly at the facts of these characters’ unmoored circumstances, yet presents without quite the visual ensorcellment of other Denis films. After presiding at the forefront of French cinema, she seems on the cusp of something different, and the truest question of Stars at Noon might be, are we ready?

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