By Erica Abeel
The action, as it were, is mostly the exhaustively filmed grappling of two beautiful people in no-star motels.
Stars at Noon, directed by Claire Denis. Screenplay by Claire Denis, Léa Mysius, and Andrew Litvack. Plays at the NY Film Festival on October 2 and and 3. The film will be released in select US theaters through A24 on October 14 and on Hulu on October 24.
Now in its 60th edition, the New York Film Festival blows you away as always with its richness and range, its multiple perspectives on what cinema can be. Curated by Film at Lincoln Center, the lineup includes Triangle of Sadness, winner of the Cannes Palme d’Or; Till, about Emmett Till’s mother and the horrors of American racism; something involving cannibals which I won’t dignify with a title; and White Noise, the opener and “big” film adapted by Noah Baumbach from Don DeLillo’s iconic novel.
Among the films most anticipated by fans of French auteurs is Stars at Noon by Claire Denis. In Stars, Claire Denis reimagines the 1986 novel of the same name by Denis Johnson — dropping the article — as a sexcapade through the steamy precincts of Nicaragua. Her take on the material will come as no surprise. “If a film is not sexy,” she has said, “it’s a little bit embarrassing.”
What is surprising is how little Stars offers in the way of plot. The action, as it were, is mostly the exhaustively filmed grappling of two beautiful people in no-star motels. Denis Johnson set his novel during Nicaragua’s war-torn Sandinista period. Claire Denis updates it to the present-day Covid era. Her Managua swarms with menacing dudes with mysterious agendas, but at no point do the issues roiling the country — which might illuminate the characters — snap into focus. Not that we want an op ed piece here, but simply some knowledge of the stakes. In Stars Nicaragua exists merely as a MacGuffin, in Hitchcock’s pointed term. All the more surprising in that Claire Denis has long explored the larger world of colonialism and white privilege.
And yet … and yet … The sultry atmosphere and rampant eros make Stars — co-winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes — a heady ride. It’s like a romance novel elevated by auteurist flourishes.
At the center is Trish Johnson (current It girl Margaret Qualley), a self-styled journalist and one hot mess. She pitches articles on hangings and kidnappings to a glossy Departures-type ‘zine in the States that cuts her off mid-Zoom. Desperate to hop a flight home, she lacks a passport and cash. To make rent in her grungy motel and keep herself in rum Trish turns tricks for American dollars, her clients ranging from a local cop to an elderly government official who reneges on his promise to grease the way.
In the bar of the Intercontinental Hotel — a luxe oasis amid the squalor — she hits on Daniel, a gentle, soft-spoken Englishman in a natty white suit (Joe Alwyn, aka Mr. Taylor Swift), who claims to be working 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 on his tail, and a smarmy CIA goon (Benny Safdie, in a droll third-act cameo).
“Should we do this again?” Daniel asks Trish after their first night. “Again and again,” she replies. Unable to quit each other and threatened by prickly operatives who want to lock ’em up for reasons unclear, at least to me, the couple makes a dash in a stolen car through the heat and rain to the Costa Rican border.
Trish is an unlikely creation, kind of a Holly Golightly in the tropics. It’s implausible that she could wander the steaming city half naked and guzzling rum without coming to some grisly end. Yet Qualley (daughter of Andie MacDowell), with her large mad eyes, masses of curls, and skinny boy body, punches up the role with personal magnetism. Trish is both clueless and street smart. At Daniel’s comment “I’m in Nicaragua on a charitable cause,” she cuts him a dangerous smile and replies, “Please don’t go into detail.” And why is she there? “I wanted to know the exact dimensions of hell.” A line so Denis Johnson it seems an eerie echo from the beyond.
Joe Alwyn is nice to look at, but in Stars he acts, to use the term in the most elastic sense, much the same as the neurotic husband he played in Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends. I detected no emotional arc in Daniel, echoing his suit, which remains white through all manner of mayhem. Sadly for us, the role was meant for Robert Pattinson (who passed for scheduling reasons). I miss the sly wit he would have brought to Daniel and the legerdemain needed to disappear into a character.
You could blame the lack of chemistry between the principals on Alwyn’s blandness. Though maybe not. I once asked Ryan Gosling in an interview, “What is chemistry between two actors?” “It’s like gas in a car. You 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 you have to have it. Casting is everything.”
It’s Claire Denis’s wizardly cinematographer Eric Gautier who makes the many sex scenes “go.” His fluid camera is one with what he’s filming. The heat, sweat, and sudden torrential rains become virtual characters. You can practically smell the actors. In a typical Denis detail, the camera lingers on pink marks Trish imprints on Daniel’s white back; in another scene she helps him wipe menstrual blood off his face and fingers.
Stars taps into the glamour of novels and films that follow white characters abroad in some foreign country — think Joan Didion and Graham Greene. In fact, perhaps Trish has read one too many of those novels. “Stars is a love story between two people who would not have met were it not for the revolution,” Denis says. Now in her 70s, Denis has made a youthful film about a full-throttle, doomed romance. That’s maybe the secret of its spell; if we haven’t been there, we wish we had.
Erica Abeel is a novelist, film and cultural critic, and former professor at CUNY. Her 2016 novel Wild Girls, about three women rebels of the ’50s, was an Oprah Magazine pick. Her journalism has appeared in the New York Times, Indiewire, and other major sites and national publications. A former dancer, when not writing she’s in a Pilates class or at the barre. Her new novel, The Commune, was recently published by Adelaide Books.