Will DiGravio rounds out our coverage of the 60th annual New York Film Festival with a review of Stars at Noon, the latest film from Claire Denis. Read more coverage in our New York Film Festival archives.
Writer-director Claire Denis is a master of many things. But increasingly, she has proven herself to be the master of making movies about the COVID pandemic that are not really about the pandemic. Her first film of the year, and one of the year’s best, Both Sides of the Blade, featured masked extras walking the streets of Paris, furthering the film’s dreamlike quality and its porous treatment of time. In her latest film, the stunning Stars at Noon, the pandemic feeds into the film’s heightened sense of paranoia. And it is used as a mechanism to demonstrate the film’s larger focus on what it feels like to be subjected to the whims of geopolitical events outside of one’s control.
A contagious and capricious work from Denis, Stars at Noon stars Margaret Qualley as Trish, a down-on-her-luck journalist living and working in Nicaragua. Her work, though, takes the form of anything but journalism. She has not written in ages. And the editors with whom she has worked (including John C. Reily in a fun cameo) no longer trust her to deliver the goods. Trish has friends in high places, but none seem willing to help her. In fact, one of them, a member of the military with whom she has a sexual relationship, steals her passport. She is stranded in the country, willing to do anything she can to get the cash and means to return to the United States.
The film takes its inspiration from a novel by Denis Johnson. In the novel, the events take place in 1984 against the backdrop of the Sandinista government. As the presence of COVID indicates, the film by Denis, who co-wrote the script with Léa Mysius and Andrew Litvack, takes place in the present day. However, political and economic forces remain very much in play. Trish sees a potential out one night in the form of a suave English businessman, Daniel (Joe Alwyn). Their relationship begins as a purely transactional one, sex for money, but morphs into something more. Not only does Trish sense a potential ally, but a mutual attraction begins to emerge. However, it quickly comes to light that Daniel is, in fact, in great danger. Soon the two become companions on the run. As the stakes grow more intense, so too does their relationship.
Qualley and Alwyn have endlessly palpable chemistry and charisma on screen. Stars at Noon operates within the tradition of the romantic thriller. The couple recalls the kind one might find in a Hitchcock film, a duo who fall in love while outmaneuvering the authorities who chase them. Denis plays with this genre and its conventions, all while bringing her own signature style. Like so much of her work, Denis is far more concerned with sensation than mere plot. Of what it feels like to be on the run, to have one’s life at stake, all while faced with sexual tension and the prospect of falling in love. The duo is an absolute joy to watch. Their chase brings them to steamy motel rooms around the country. They encounter an American businessman (Benny Safdie, in a charming performance) who seems to know just a little too much. And undergo one of the most suspenseful COVID tests you will ever experience.
Both Trish and Daniel are confronted with the realities of a country’s politics that they do not fully understand. They are outsiders who only know just enough to be afraid and survive as best they can. Stars at Noon is a highly political film, one that bears the reality of the situation in various ways. There are moments where domestic and international politics come to the forefront of the plot. But they also sneak their way into the film’s background and in minutiae. Denis portrays the world in its nuanced complexities. This is not to say she parachutes into the country and pretends to be an expert. She does not. Instead, she directs our attention toward the presence of politics, of social and economic forces beyond comprehension and control. It is a superb approach. And one that perfectly mirrors the experience of the characters on screen.
Trish marks a tremendous performance for Qualley, who, in the role, captures all the complexities of the character. She carries that very specific kind of undefined ambition. An ability to hit the streets and makes things happen, just not in the way — or with the end result — she imagined or needs. And she has the people skills and charm needed to get people on her side but never get the complete and total respect she deserves. Trish exists in the day-to-day. She lives in the shadow of broader happenings yet can often do little else but sip a beer and keep inching towards her goal, working on rebuilding and reshaping her life. It is a truth that is, in its own way, both melancholic and hopeful. We have all grown used to living in such shadows. All we can do is keep going.
Stars at Noon will be available to stream on Hulu beginning October 28, 2022. It is also available to watch on demand.
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