It’s intriguing for a long-term fan of a director, perhaps even one whose films you’ve grown up alongside the last decade or two, to watch them stumble slightly. But for Claire Denis, the remarkable auteur in question, even her strongest works can have a teetering, tentative quality, as if you were discovering the dawning narrative and emotional progression in tandem with her. 

Stars at Noon––based on a minor novel by the underrated American author Denis Johnson––is Denis’ second film to premiere this year, after Both Sides of the Blade at the Berlinale, and a slightly rocky reaction to that film diminished some of the anticipation for this one. Her latest work is not one that feels fully achieved and realized, suggesting an absolutely confident mastery of her primary source material, but it’s still deeply watchable, laden with sex and intimacy in a way that doesn’t apologize for itself, and provides an alternate gloss on her key themes of power, bodies, and postcolonial afterlives. 

One of the initial issues is that it isn’t cast in typical Denis fashion. Like a director who might engage in a years-long collaboration with an editor, or DP, she has an idiosyncratic stock company to always call on, such as the brilliant likes of Alex Descas and Grégoire Colin, whose typical presence eases you in and makes you go, “Ah, this feels right.” Here she works with actors who are clearly great admirers of her cinema yet new to her working methods, and there isn’t that foot-sliding-into-glass-slipper sense of just-so. 

Margaret Qualley plays Trish, an American journalist abroad in Managua, Nicaragua, who moonlights as a sex worker, with a sense of crabby, fast-talking repartee––Katherine Hepburn or Clara Bow with the frizzy hair of Michelle Pfeiffer. Even though the particulars of her life are a mess, a recognizable image of millennial precarity, there’s still an underlying steel and street-smartness to her that allows self-preservation. In addition to holding down relationships, sexual and professional, with a local cop and a high-ranking member of the political class, she begins seeing Daniel (Joe Alwyn), also a means through which she can turn out stories and U.S. dollar bills––far preferable to the Nicaraguan currency as leverage for when she wants to retrieve her impounded passport and up sticks. 

I’ve occluded the background because Denis does as well. With her customary opacity, martial law and civil unrest of some kind is shown as pervading the country; elections are set to be held, whose status of tampering is unclear, and the U.S. state department is nervously watching the developments. Given that these details map onto the Contra war of the mid-1980s––Denis’ adaptation is set in a COVID-afflicted present––the small ensemble’s passage through these events starts resembling something like Transit or a modern-dress adaptation of an old play, where the disjunction between what’s visualized and the implications is the point.

The exact conspiratorial nature of Alwyn’s character is quite fascinating: he claims to be employed by a British oil firm, looking to do business with (or take advantage of) Nicaragua––Daniel calls it “charity,” others would call it war profiteering. But when a Costa Rican spy posing as a potential business stakeholder catches wind, Daniel goes from looking like a wealthy, white-suited dandy to having to perennially live in those duds on the run as they disintegrate around his body, like someone fleeing in a dystopian catastrophe à la High-Rise. Trish, with whom he shares a vested interest in survival, accompanies him towards the Costa Rican border––Daniel’s only hope, and a gift of raw material which this long-form magazine feature writer.

Of her prior work, sharing the most DNA with White Material––also about a white woman’s flight from a foreign land she thought she could subsist off––there’s no faulting Denis’ commitment to the material, or her skill at conveying erotic ardor, and our longings and senses of solidarity towards what might not be best for us. Still, this is one instance where the chosen elisions and ellipses that are so essential to her films don’t feel in a convincing relationship with the wider subject and detail many more conventional filmmakers would not leave to the imagination. 

Stars at Noon premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and will be released by A24.

Grade: B

No more articles