Review: Claire Denis’ erotic thriller ‘Stars at Noon’ emits the sweat smell of sexcess
Few filmmakers can evoke, as fully as Claire Denis does, the intoxication and menace of feeling cast adrift in a world where you don’t belong. Think of the French coffee-plantation owner in “White Material,” clinging desperately to the war-torn African country she’s claimed as her own, even as it tries to expel her like a deadly virus. Or think of the solitary man of mystery wandering the globe and trying to stave off his own mortality in “The Intruder,” a title that could easily sum up this filmmaker’s own adventurous, boundary-defying spirit.
I flashed on both those movies in between all the hot sex, cool liquor and lukewarm longueurs of “Stars at Noon,” Denis’ 15th feature and a co-winner of the Grand Prix at the recent Cannes Film Festival. Adapted from “The Stars at Noon,” Denis Johnson’s 1986 novel of almost the same title, it’s nominally a political thriller, marbled with sweaty erotic interludes, a few listless chase sequences and a quasi-Beckettian streak of existential aimlessness. It isn’t one of her better movies, but like even her lesser achievements, it warrants more than easy dismissals. It’s a fascinating confluence of talent and tedium; it’s also a story in which tedium — the day-after-day frustration of a stalled, thwarted existence — may well be the point.
That story centers on a young American journalist named Trish (Margaret Qualley, an impudent firecracker), who’s sweating it out in the Nicaraguan capital of Managua. Once she must have arrived here on a tide of youthful muckraking idealism, eager to see and maybe change the world. Now she drifts between random bars and random beds, subsisting on a rum-based diet and having sex with any man for a fistful of córdobas. Trish just wants a Coke, a shampoo and a plane ticket home, all eminently reasonable if not-so-easily realizable goals. She hasn’t written a piece in ages, having burned one editor too many (John C. Reilly has a hilarious Zoom cameo as one of them). She’s also had her passport confiscated by the Nicaraguan government, which doesn’t care for her coverage of local unrest.
You won’t learn too much about that unrest in “Stars at Noon,” apart from a few vague references to kidnappings and election woes, a delectable late-breaking turn by Benny Safdie as a CIA man, and many shots of armed soldiers patrolling streets and corridors plastered with protest signs (“No mas abuso de poder / No more abuse of power”). The political specifics don’t seem to interest Denis terribly much, which may account for why she and her co-writer, Andrew Litvack, have shifted Johnson’s story from its original 1984 Nicaraguan Revolution setting to roughly the present day — something the movie quickly signals by having Trish compulsively don and drop a face mask as she hustles and bustles and hustles some more.
And so “Stars at Noon” is, among other things, a COVID movie, as was Denis’ earlier picture from this year, the shattering French melodrama “Both Sides of the Blade.” Her narrative accommodation of mid-pandemic protocols is just another reminder that Denis doesn’t do easy escapism, that even her most transporting fictions have trouble untethering themselves from the real world. No one tests positive in “Stars at Noon,” though I suspect the quarantined version of this movie wouldn’t look all that different. It would probably still involve Trish spending hours holed up in her dumpy motel room, having sweaty (but phlegmier) sex with the handsome fellow traveler who might prove her salvation or her undoing.
That would be Daniel (Joe Alwyn), a white-suited Englishman with a seductive gaze, fetching whiskers and an agreeable air of mischief. He operates with mysterious motives — he works for an oil conglomerate with vague interests in the region — though there’s nothing especially mysterious about his desire for Trish, or Trish’s willingness to reciprocate. If no one understands cultural and geographical dislocation better than Denis, it’s also true that no one films sexual congress with the same palpable, thoroughly unself-conscious heat. And I do mean heat, the kind that drenches; “Stars at Noon” may not be a great movie, but it is one of the great recent achievements in perspirational cinema. As these two beauties thrash and rut and moan, Trish clasping Daniel so hard that she leaves red hand-prints on his pale skin, their couplings seem to obliterate all else, including the thinly sketched tensions and conflicts unfolding just outside their window.
In effect, “Stars at Noon” plays like a more narratively unruly version of a movie like Peter Weir’s “The Year of Living Dangerously,” with its foreign-correspondent intrigue and its drive-by view of local turmoil. Denis, who’s spent much of her career thinking about and dismantling the white colonialist gaze, may have actually made the more honest movie, insofar as “Stars at Noon” doesn’t feign any more political concern or consciousness than its feckless lead characters do. There’s maybe a sliver of wry commentary in the half-patient, half-weary looks that Trish gets when she barks orders at the bartenders who pour her martinis and the cab drivers who ferry her down alternately steaming and rain-drenched streets. She’s a beautiful woman and a decidedly ugly American, and the movie seems by turns fascinated, appalled and electrified by Qualley’s mercurial performance.
Trish is drunk on her own sense of unbelonging; as a movie character, she’s fully, insistently and exasperatingly alive. Daniel is another story, and while you can buy their mutual and tirelessly consummated attraction, you can’t quite believe that Trish would follow him into the frenzied, blood-spattered but weirdly tension-free chaos of this movie’s third act. But then, Denis’ skill as a filmmaker has often rested, to some degree, on her oblique story construction and her prioritization of mood. Given how effectively and sometimes brilliantly she takes the narrative road less traveled, it’s no surprise that the thriller mechanics of “Stars at Noon” are what feel the most perfunctory.
The movie’s most overpowering moment is simply that, a moment, stolen from the flow of time and disconnected from the others. Pausing during one of their mad dashes to nowhere, Trish and Daniel cling to each other on an empty dance floor, gorgeously bathed in purple light and backed by a haunting original title tune by the band Tindersticks. Dance scenes are perhaps a too-easy sweet spot for Denis by now, but there’s no mistaking her feel for entangled bodies and swaying rhythms, or her ability to forge powerful emotional connections out of almost nothing. It may be the most seductive of lies, but for one fleeting, fugitive instance, Trish is right where she’s supposed to be.
‘Stars at Noon’
In English and Spanish with English subtitles
Rated: R, for sexual content, nudity, language and some violence
Running time: 2 hours, 16 minutes
Playing: Starts Oct. 14, Alamo Drafthouse, downtown Los Angeles; Laemmle Monica, Santa Monica; Laemmle Glendale; Harkins Chino Hills; Regency Agoura Hills; Regency Laguna Niguel; available Oct. 28 on Hulu
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