When the teenaged Margaret Qualley appeared as one of the Manson gang in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), it was easy to predict we’d be seeing a lot of this young actor. That prediction has come true – literally – in Stars at Noon, a film in which she spends much of the time rolling around naked between sweaty sheets in the tropics.
It’s the COVID-19 era, but it could just as easily be the 1980s. Qualley, who is the daughter of ‘80s heartthrob, Andie MacDowell, plays Trish, a young American journalist who has come to write stories for magazines that are disinclined to run them.
In the wake of the Sandinistas’ revolution the Reagan adminstration viewed the new Marxist regime as a dangerous blot on the Latin American landscape that needed to be starved or brutalised out of existence. These were the years when the United States funded a rebel force known as the Contras, who engaged in a reign of terror, aided and abetted by the CIA.
The abuses of the Contras inspired widespread support for the Sandinstas, who appeared as heroic revolutionaries fighting against overwhelming odds. In reality the regime was hardly less brutal than its enemies. For the American journalists who went to Nicaragua with idealistic expectations, life under the Sandanistas proved to be a crushing disappointment. The movie updates Denis Johnson’s orginal story by 40 years, but nothing seems to have changed.
Johnson, an American poet and novelist, arrived in Nicaragua in 1980, intending to write a long magazine article. He soon realised the only way he could convey the squalor and horror of the place was in a work of fiction. This became his third novel, The Stars at Noon (1986), the title taken from a poem by W.S. Merwin.
The key line is:
…what we are looking for
In each other
Is each other
Johnson channelled his experience of a place he routinely described as “hell”, into the love story of two characters thrown together in desperation – an American journalist reduced to selling her body to fund her survival in Nicaragua, and an Englishman working as a consultant for an oil company, who makes a fatal mistake and becomes a fugitive.
French director, Claire Denis, read Johnson’s novel ten years ago, and took her time with casting and locations. The story itself is vague and confusing, with more than a touch of the Kafkaesque. By giving the characters names – Trish and Daniel – Denis has already taken Johnson’s narrative onto more solid ground. In the book, the protagonists remain nameless. She excells in recreating the paranoid, claustrophobic, poetic nature of the novel, which often feels like a bad dream.
The film begins with Trish submitting to the unwanted attentions of a minor official, who wants to confiscate her journalist’s card. With this melancholy encounter out of the way, she heads to the Intercontinental Hotel, where she hopes to find a mark with American dollars.
That customer is Daniel (Joe Alwyn), a diffident English family man, enagaged in some sort of industrial espionage. Within minutes, Trish is back in bed, earning her keep, but she feels a certain sympathy for this man, so obviously out of his depth in this shabby, corrupt city. Whether animated by political idealism or less noble motives, Daniel has got himself into trouble, and is being shadowed by a policeman from Costa Rica.
Trish has to explain to him just how dangerous this is, and eventually offers him refuge in her primitive hotel room. The couple must lose the Costa Rican and make their way to the border, but the route is slow and treacherous. When Trish finds herself talking one morning to another American “consultant” (Benny Safdie), who is obviously working for the CIA, the degree of fear and trepidation rises still higher. We wonder if Trish and Daniel are heading towards the border, or towards a sticky end. Are they destined to remain together, or will one need to betray the other?
The uncertainties are part of the very fabric of this story, set in the chaos of an impoverished, post-revolutionary country engaged in a war against covert forces. It’s a place in which anyone could be an enemy or a spy, and justice is a lottery. It’s also oppressively hot and humid – all blazing sun, filthy city streets and impenetrable jungle. It’s a heat that fuses the brain, making it impossible to think or plan. The only thing Trish and Daniel can fall back on is their desperate love-making, as if by losing themselves in the narcotic of sex they can blot out a threatening reality.
Qualley and Alwyn both have great on-screen presence, although we often seem to be looking at two sweaty, exhausted people, feeling completely drained, as if they can’t wait for the day’s shooting to be over. Denis keeps an intense focus on the lovers, making us feel the way they cling to each other amid a shifting, unstable environment.
A word of warning: as you’ve probably figured out by now, Stars at Noon is long on atmosphere but short on plot. This will be no surprise to those familiar with Claire Denis’s films, which tend to be slow and unconventional, more at home in the arthouse than the mainstream. The best of them, such as Beau Travail (1999), leave us with the sensation that we’ve been watching something completely unique, in which the images rather than the words move the story forward. There’s always an Other, an outsider, a disruptive element, or a stranger in a strange land. She explores the gulfs that exist between people of different races, different nationalities or generations. Her characters grow close, catch a glimmer of understanding, then veer away from each other again.
Stars at Noon has much of that disconcerting quality. Trish and Daniel are united by bonds of sex and sympathy, but otherwise they remain unknown to each other.
One needs to become completely immersed in this feverish, grimy, tropical love story, or else Denis’s style will be a recipe for frustration. To enjoy Stars at Noonthe viewer must be prepared to meander from one end of the film to the other, taking in each mysterious event as it comes along, abandoning any search for deeper meanings. In this ‘hellish’ setting, the only point of focus is the intense but fragile relationship between two people whose chance encounter has become a date with destiny.
Stars at Noon
Directed by Claire Denis
Written by Claire Denis, Andrew Litvack & Léa Mysius, after a novel by Denis Johnson
Starring: Margaret Qualley, Joe Alwyn, Benny Safdie, Danny Ramirez, Nick Romano, Monica Batholomew
France/Panama/USA, rated M, 135 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 10 December, 2022