Claire Denis continues a career preoccupation with ex-pat life in Stars At Noon, an update of Denis Johnson’s 1986 novel about an American woman who uses sex as currency to survive when she’s stuck in politically unstable Nicaragua. The screenplay, adapted by Denis, Léa Mysius, and Andrew Litvack, stays faithful to the source material’s characters and geographic setting, but transports events to the Covid era of face masks and PCR tests. The plot drips with so much misogyny that even synopsizing it induces cringes, but if anyone can get away with telling such a story in this day and age, it’s probably Denis. She filters the goings-on through proverbial rose-colored glasses that strip away much of the inherent cynicism in the transactional nature of the relationship at the film’s core.
Margaret Qualley (Maid, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood) plays Trish Johnson, an American freelance journalist covering political kidnappings in Nicaragua, who finds herself without an outlet, an assignment, a passport, or dollars—perhaps not surprising given she’s inexplicably pitching hard-hitting stories to a luxury travel magazine. The córdobas she carries are no longer worth anything due to the black market. Out of desperation, she resorts to turning tricks to earn cash and curry favor with local authority figures, hoping to extract herself from the country. Every time before she performs sex work, she is seen wiping tears away—an act the film most definitely does not regard with dignity or respect, at least for Trish.
When she leaves her own dumpy hotel for a bar at the swanky Intercontinental to bait her next $50 john, she meets the mysterious Daniel DeHaven (Joe Alwyn, The Favourite), a British contractor for an oil company, or so he claims. After shaking a Costa Rican police officer (Danny Ramirez) following Daniel, they wind up in her hotel room for sex. But unlike with her previous patrons, Trish visibly enjoys herself with Daniel, and they grow closer as they increasingly depend on each other for a getaway.
The film has several of Denis’ signature flourishes: There’s one scene in which Trish and Daniel twirl on an otherwise empty dance floor while a DJ cues up a slow jam by the Tindersticks, and another where a restaurant employee circles Trish in the same way Denis Lavant got down to Corona’s “Rhythm Of The Night” in Beau Travail. There’s also a persistent colonial gaze, for which critics seldom take Denis to task.
What stands out is how Denis and DP Eric Gautier frame everything like a romance, when what transpires on screen is often anything but romantic. Trish endures seemingly endless indignities to get by, and the circumstantial lovers face ominous threats that ultimately escalate to violence, but the Tindersticks contribute a tender, jazzy score. Perhaps Denis does perceive this as a romance, though the press notes characterize the film as a “romantic thriller.”
The “thriller” part is not apparent from the visuals or filmmaking techniques, though the story does maintain a certain John le Carré vibe with its international intrigue. Despite the constant sight of armed patrols lurking in the background, and Benny Safdie appearing out of nowhere possessed with knowledge of everything there is to know about Trish and Daniel, the film never builds up any real sense of suspense, urgency, or imminent danger. It doesn’t feel like a true erotic thriller, at least not the kind that Paul Verhoeven or Adrian Lyne might have helmed.
Perhaps Johnson and Denis have tried to expose rather than exploit the material’s misogyny, but Trish doesn’t evidence any agency, despite being a competent and knowledgeable journalist who speaks Spanish fluently. The film goes out of its way to reiterate how degraded Trish feels to sell her body, but she makes an exception for the gringo, though he’s arguably no less shady than the rest of her clients. Ultimately, Trish learns a lesson in the end, but it’s unclear if she understands the role her own prejudices may have played in learning it—rendering Stars At Noon an occasionally seductive but muddled examination of a complex physical and emotional relationship.