Film Review: “Stars At Noon” by Claire Denis – A romance novel enhanced by author flourishes
By Erica Abeel
The action, so to speak, is mostly the exhaustively filmed shot of two beautiful people in starless motels.
The stars at noon, directed by Claire Denis. Screenplay by Claire Denis, Léa Mysius and Andrew Litvack. Performs at the NY Film Festival October 2-3. The film will be released in select US theaters via A24 on October 14 and the Hulu October 24.
Now in its 60th edition, the New York Film Festival as always amazes you with its richness and breadth, its multiple perspectives on what cinema can be. Hosted by Film at Lincoln Center, the lineup includes triangle of sadnesswinner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes; Until, about Emmett Till’s mother and the horrors of American racism; something involving cannibals that I don’t want to honor with a title; and White noisethe opening and the “big” film adapted by Noah Baumbach from the iconic novel by Don DeLillo.
Among the films most awaited by fans of French authors is The stars at noon by Claire Denis. In Stars, Claire Denis reimagines Denis Johnson’s 1986 novel of the same name – removing the article – as a sexcapade through the scorching precincts of Nicaragua. His take on the material will come as no surprise. “If a movie isn’t sexy,” she said, “it’s kind of awkward.”
What is surprising is how little Stars offers in terms of plot. The action, so to speak, is mostly the exhaustively filmed shot of two beautiful people in starless motels. Denis Johnson set his novel during the war-torn Sandinista period in Nicaragua. Claire Denis updates it in the current era of the Covid. His Managua is crawling with menacing dudes with mysterious agendas, but at no point do the issues troubling the country — which might shed some light on the characters — focus on the subject. Not that we want an opinion piece here, just some knowledge of the issues. In Stars Nicaragua only exists as a MacGuffin, to use Hitchcock’s sharp expression. All the After surprising in that Claire Denis has long explored the larger world of colonialism and white privilege.
And yet… and yet… The sensual atmosphere and creeping eros make Stars — co-winner of the Cannes Grand Prix — a heady ride. It’s like a romance novel enhanced with author flourishes.
At the center is Trish Johnson (current it girl Margaret Qualley), a self-proclaimed journalist and a real shambles. She pitches articles on hangings and kidnappings to a brilliant departures-type ‘zine in the United States which cuts it in full Zoom. Desperate to catch a flight home, she has no passport or cash. To make rent at her filthy motel and keep herself on rum, Trish spins tricks for US dollars, her clients ranging from a local cop to an elderly civil servant who reneges on his promise to grease the way.
In the bar of the Intercontinental Hotel – an oasis of luxury amid squalor – she meets Daniel, a soft-spoken Englishman in a smart white suit (Joe Alwyn, aka Mr. Taylor Swift), who pretends to work for an oil conglomerate. Or maybe he’s in town to, like, destabilize the government or something – a suspicion fueled by the gun in his dopp kit, the Costa Rican cop hot on his trail, and a CIA jerk (Benny Safdie , in a funny third-act cameo).
“Should we do this again?” Daniel asks Trish after their first night. “Again and again,” she replies. Unable to leave each other and threatened by dodgy officers who want to lock them up for reasons that are unclear to me at least, the couple race in a stolen car through the heat and rain to the Costa Rican border.
Trish is an unlikely mix of Holly Golightly and a daughter of Sarah Lawrence. It’s unlikely that she could wander the smoking city half-naked and drinking rum without coming to a grisly end. Yet Qualley (Andie MacDowell’s daughter), with her wild big eyes, masses of curls and skinny boyish body, plays the part with a personal magnetism. Trish is both clueless and resourceful. To Daniel’s comment “I’m in Nicaragua for a charity cause,” she gives him a dangerous smile and replies, “Please don’t go into detail. “And why is it she the? “I wanted to know the exact dimensions of hell.” A line if Denis Johnson seems an eerie echo of the afterlife.
Joe Alwyn is fun to watch, but in Stars he acts, to use the term in the loosest sense, much like the neurotic husband he played in Sally Rooney Conversations with friends. I detected no emotional arc in Daniel, echoing his costume, which remains white through all sorts of chaos. Unfortunately for us, the role was destined for Robert Pattinson (who passed away due to scheduling reasons). I miss the sly wit he would have brought to Daniel and the sleight of hand needed to disappear into character.
You could blame the lack of chemistry between the directors on Alwyn’s blandness. Although maybe not. I once asked Ryan Gosling in an interview, “What’s the chemistry between two actors?” “It’s like gasoline in a car. You either have it or you don’t. I mean, if you don’t have it, you can get out and push the car. But if you really want to go there, you have to have it. The cast is everything.
It is Eric Gautier, the sorcerer cinematographer of Claire Denis, who makes the many sex scenes “go”. His fluid camera becomes one with what he films. Heat, sweat and sudden torrential rain become virtual characters. You can practically smell the actors. In a typical Denis detail, the camera lingers on the pink marks Trish imprints on Daniel’s white back; in another scene, she helps him wipe the menstrual blood from his face and fingers.
Stars taps into the glamor of novels and films that follow white characters abroad in a foreign land – think Joan Didion and Graham Greene. In fact, maybe Trish has read too many of these novels. “Stars is a love story between two people who would not have met without the revolution,” says Denis. Now 70, Denis made a youth film about a full-throttle, doomed romance. This is perhaps the secret of its charm; if we didn’t go, we wish we were there.
Erica Abeel is a novelist, film and culture critic and former professor at CUNY. Her 2016 novel wild girlsabout three rebellious women from the 50s, was a Oprah Magazine take. His journalism has appeared in the New York Times, Indiewire, and other important sites and national publications. Former dancer, when she is not writing, she is in Pilates class or at the barre. Her new novel, The Commune, was recently published by Adelaide Books.