Stars at Noon

 

MA15+, 138 minutes

3 Stars

 

Review by © Jane Freebury

Adapted from a novel set in Nicaragua, this new film from the French auteur Claire Denis takes place in the recent present, during the global pandemic. The upheavals of that country’s bitterly fought revolutionary period are lingering still. There are high profile, heavily armed police and there are shadowy foreign operatives, but there are also the face masks, testing stations and obligatory temperature checks of a public health emergency.

It was the plan to shoot Stars at Noon on location but Denis decided against it. Moving the shoot to nearby Panama instead in a gesture of disapproval against the regime in Nicaragua, where President Ortega had returned to power.

The two main characters in the original book, Denis Johnson’s The Stars at Noon published in 1986, are broadly the same in Denis’ screen adaptation. An American woman who claims she is a journalist and an English businessman ostensibly working for an oil company.

When the young couple meet and fall in love, they have already slipped the rails and are at risk in Nicaragua’s febrile and corrupted political environment

The atmos of the film is surprisingly relaxed, despite the danger all around. Perhaps it’s the heat that slows life down, or it’s the torrential downpours that put a stop to it altogether. Stars at Noon, combining a jazz score with long languid takes around the city, is no high-tensile political thriller.

Trish (Margaret Qualley) came to Nicaragua to report on the plight of refugees but now cannot interest her editor back in the US in any more of her pieces. It seems she arrived in the country full of idealism and keen to make a difference, but now her press card is invalidated. As a result, her passport has been confiscated by the police and she is stuck in a place that has the ‘exact dimensions of hell’, staying on at the whim of a lecherous officer, Subteniente (Nick Romano). If a friend or two in high places, like an elderly Vice Minister, was able to help her in the past, they can no longer.

So, she survives opportunistically. By scrounging, by pilfering toilet rolls and bottles of shampoo. And by performing casual prostitution, performing tricks with men she meets at the bar in the intercontinental hotel. When she meets Daniel (Joe Alwyn) there, their attraction is mutual and they are soon enmeshed in each other’s complicated lives.

Their lovemaking gets a lot of screen time. In style and content, Stars at Noon will remind some audiences of the type of films that arrived on screen during in the 1970s and 1980s, featuring a lot of sex between beautiful, alienated young people revelling in their new-found freedoms. Despite the political background to its production, Denis’ film is less political drama than it is the sensual story of an affair between expats who are caught up in political machinations in a dangerous foreign country, and unable to leave.

It takes a hustler to know one

As the young American, a smiling, impish kid on a jaunt one minute, a hard-eyed survivalist the next, Qualley is terrific, giving her character vitality and substance. While Alwyn’s role isn’t as well written, and his character gives a lot less away, we can safely assume that both Trish and Daniel are one of a kind.

The screenplay, a collaboration between Denis, Andrew Litvack and Lea Mysius, has a lot of work to do in this long film. As it is, we have a very photogenic young couple and plenty of cityscapes captured by French master cinematographer, Eric Gautier, that are gorgeous to look at, but after a while it becomes clear that the writing is rather thin, and the plot slight.

Despite all the sex scenes, the covert threat of violence against a backdrop of political corruption, and despite the moody jazz score, Stars at Noon has run out of things to say before we reach the final scenes. At the very least, it could have done with a decisive edit.

Veteran filmmaker Claire Denis has built her reputation with thought-provoking, sensual and delicately constructed films like White Material, Both Sides of the Blade and Beau Travail. Her Stars at Noon is another fiction toying with familiar themes and sporting a wonderful look, but it falls short of her best.

First published in the Canberra Times on 2 December 2022. Jane’s reviews are also published on Rotten Tomatoes