Once upon a time Claire Denis didn’t make genre movies. She made film you might designate broadly as dramas, or as French dramas, but most specifically as Claire Denis movies, films often with a strong emphasis on unspoken attraction (see Beau Travail, her masterpiece).
But in recent years that has changed. In films like Bastards, a Get Carter-style crime drama, or High Life, a densely imagined piece of sci-fi, or Let the Sun Shine In, an ironic romance, Denis has shown she’s happy to make genre movies, as long as it’s on her terms.
Which brings us to Stars at Noon, a Graham Greene-style thriller set in a shady Central American country run by the secret police and brimming with characters who are never quite straight about who or what they are. The special Denis twist is to withold any information that might help us get our bearings. Which forces us into scrabbling about for clues, especially in the faces and reactions of the characters in front of us. Exactly, I’m guessing, as Denis intends. Stars at noon may be invisible but they are there.
Margaret Qualley looks even more sexy than Tarantino made her look in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood… as the supposed journalist, entitled-by-her-hotness young woman marooned in a Covid-masked Nicaragua and turning tricks for $50 a go in an attempt to build up a war chest to go home (possibly). Joe Alwyn plays the mysterious English dude, dressed in a white suit as if to say “nothing suspicious going on here”, who yields instantly to the come-on by boozy, good-time Trish (Qualley) and goes to bed with her in the first of several steamy encounters that would be labelled voyeuristic if shot by a male director.
They fall in…love…lust…something, while around them a succession of murky Latino personages wheel, Trish finds her credit has suddenly run out and Daniel turns out to be exactly the sort of guy a Graham Greene novel would demand at this point – morally compromised, in hock to one spy agency or another, a marked man.
They make a run for it, to the Costa Rica border, where Trish is finally required to make a choice.
If you’ve got a bit of a thing for Qualley, this is the film for you. Denis absolutely fetishises almost every bit of her – the legs, the lips, the breasts, the waist, the hair. Qualley responds with a performance that’s exceptional, fantastically subtle even as she portrays a wild, firecracker of a woman for whom subtletly is a foreign country.
Alwyn’s Daniel is a different matter. Far less important, he’s the catalyst but not the agent in this story (a joke about secret agents?). A man who’s in as much danger of being seized by Nicaragua’s secret service as he is of being snared by love. Denis and her co-writers Andrew Litvack and Léa Mysius make that absolutely specific (unusually so for a Denis film) in a little exchange when Daniel realises Nicaragua’s spooks have him cornered and the game is up. “I’m caught. Alright. I’m caught,” he says. A beat. “I love you.”
Benny Safdie turns up late on, as a CIA guy also straight out of Greene, a sweaty vulgarian in a loud shirt there to offer a deal to Trish – give up Daniel, in effect. Doesn’t he want to fuck her too, she asks? He says no, though his eyes are wandering over her body as he says it.
Who Daniel works for is never explained. Nor do we learn much about Trish’s real reason for being in Nicaragua – journalism seems to be the last thing she’s interested in.
Not much is explained and not much happens, it must be said. Perhaps for this reason the film seems to have split people right down the middle. Personally, I was glued and think Denis has really pulled it off here, playing the genre game and yet also having it all her own way, building a mood more than telling a story (the Tindersticks late-night-jazz score really helps).
And to think this was just one of two movies she delivered in 2022. Time to seek out the other one, Both Sides of the Blade.
Stars at Noon – watch it/buy it at Amazon
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