By Giovanni Marchini Camia
“I’m telling you I was in deep, we both were, it was a honeymoon, that whirligig of crashing nuances and dismal reconciliations, vistas of hope redeemed, endless milliseconds free of natural law.”—Denis Johnson, The Stars at Noon
“I’m telling you I was in deep, we both were, it was a honeymoon, that whirligig of crashing nuances and dismal reconciliations, vistas of hope redeemed, endless milliseconds free of natural law.”
After waiting 34 years to return to the Cannes Competition, Claire Denis deserved a warm welcome back. Instead, she got to be the chosen victim of the Brown Bunny Syndrome, the annually recurring compulsion among festival attendees to proclaim a film as the worst ever to compete for the Palme d’Or. Although she received some vindication from the jury, who awarded her the Grand Prix (ex aequo, but still…), the critical vitriol is baffling. Stars at Noon may not be top-tier Denis but it’s also far from a trainwreck and, to be sure, this year’s slate wasn’t lacking in more deserving targets. In fact, one premiered the very same day: Saeed Roustaee’s Leila’s Brothers, a three-hour snore so incompetently edited, the endless group quarrels between the titular siblings recall the infamous pub scene from Bohemian Rhapsody (2018).
This certainly can’t be said of Stars at Noon, whose editor Guy Lecorne renders the torrid and doomed passion of two lovers on the run as an intoxicating rush, propelled by Tindersticks’ lush, jazzy soundtrack. Adapted from Denis Johnson’s 1986 novel, it’s Denis’ most impressionistic and overwhelmingly sensory film since L’intrus (2004), which also happens to be her last literary adaptation—a correlation that may not be incidental. Denis once told me she decided to adapt Jean-Luc Nancy’s memoir because reading it had gotten her “really high,” and it’s conceivable that Johnson’s feverish, poetic prose had the same effect.
Nancy’s account of the identity crisis he suffered from receiving a heart transplant was turned by Denis into a story of geopolitical intrigue, so it’s remarkable that the next book she decided to film should be…a story of geopolitical intrigue. And the one significant element that she and her co-writers, Andrew Litvack and Léa Mysius, add to Johnson’s narrative, which they otherwise follow with exceptional fidelity, is an identity crisis. The novel’s unnamed anti-heroine they’ve christened Trish (Margaret Qualley) and their choice to symbolically bookend her journey with the loss and recovery of her passport is a clear nod to Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975), whose protagonist attempts metaphysical suicide by swapping his passport for a dead man’s.
Just as Jack Nicholson’s reporter sought out rebel fighters in the Chadian desert, so too did wannabe-reporter-turned-prostitute Trish land in Nicaragua with the intention of writing about the armed conflict in the north of the country. (The film was actually shot in Panama.) That her motives were driven more by romantic idealization than political persuasion she signals, early in the film, by wistfully observing that “rebels used to be so sexy.” A framed picture of Sandinista fighters inspires this reflection, spotted on the wall while she submits to a listless screw with the Subteniente (Nick Romano), a low-ranking army officer who regularly trades her administrative for sexual favours—except that in this instance he finishes off by confiscating her passport and press card. In a video call, her editor, played in a droll cameo by John C. Reilly, then tells her he has no intention of bailing her out, seeing as she already pocketed an advance and never turned in the promised article. With a genial “fuck you,” he strands her in Nicaragua—or Hell, as she prefers to call it—and completes her existential unmooring.
Salvation, even if temporary, is found at the Intercontinental Hotel—her favoured spot to pick up johns—in the form of a British executive for the Watts Oil Company named Daniel (Joe Alwyn). Although their coupling is also of a transactional nature, Denis films the scene in her signature carnal close-ups (courtesy of DP Eric Gautier; Agnès Godard hasn’t been back since 2017’s Un beau soleil intérieur), charging it with the eroticism that was lacking in Trish’s earlier assignation with the Subteniente. Their coup de foudre escalates into a full-blown amour fou when, upon meeting for a second time, Trish helps Daniel evade a Costa Rican policeman, who is after him for a vaguely explained incident of industrial espionage. The lovers first shack up in Trish’s fleabag motel and then, with both the Costa Rican cop and the Nicaraguan authorities on their trail, attempt to make a run for the border. Just before the finish line, they run into an American claiming to be a consultant (a scene-stealing Benny Safdie) who is obviously evil, given that he’s alone in a tropical middle of nowhere, wearing a Hawaiian shirt, and waxing lyrical about the local meal he’s eating. Has this combination ever spelled anything but CIA? Indeed, he soon drops his mask and cuts the honeymoon short.
That this imbroglio doesn’t make much real-world sense is beside the point. When in the opening scene Trish walks through the ravaged, deserted streets of Managua and enters a McDonald’s staffed by armed soldiers, the impression is that Stars at Noon, like its source text, is set in 1984, when post-revolutionary Nicaragua was under junta rule and a civil war raged between the Marxist Sandinistas and the US-backed Contras. As such, Trish wearing a surgical mask around her chin is somewhat perplexing. But it’s not long before the camera alights on a poster stamped with COVID-19 regulations, thus confirming that it is, in fact, the present day. This deliberate confusion of temporalities, which allows for the many anachronisms, might recall Christian Petzold, whose Transit (2018), adapted from Anna Seghers’ 1944 novel,transports WWII into the present. But whereas the existential quandaries of Petzold’s film serve to illustrate the eternal recurrence of certain geopolitical realities, in Stars at Noon the emphasis is reversed.
Or, at least, it’s more successful when read that way. Limiting herself to broad truisms, which could apply to any number of countries in Latin America and elsewhere, Denis doesn’t say anything particularly illuminating about neocolonialism. Trish is a hyperbolized Ugly American, stumbling through a foreign country perennially soused and throwing racist insults around her. (Props to Qualley, who is undeniably Andie “Because I’m Worth It” MacDowell’s daughter in look, complexion, and, especially, hair, for pulling off a charismatic and even reasonably convincing rendition of such a hot mess.) That she coasts on her privilege as a white imperialist is a given, but are her reckless behaviour and eventual reality check all that different from, say, those of Juliette Binoche’s adulterer in Denis’ previous film from this year, Avec amour et acharnement? Both women lose the shackles of their respective predicaments, temporarily rejecting the reality principle in order to give themselves over to passion; change the context from conflict-torn Nicaragua to bougie Paris and the essence remains the same. (Is that equivalence itself an expression of bourgeois privilege? Perhaps…)
In Stars at Noon, rather than the political implications of the narrative, Denis is evidently much more invested in conveying the intensity of the affair, which is where her film casts a ravishing spell. Trish and Daniel’s escape through the lush and sweltering landscape is punctuated with countless bouts of sex that flit past in a whirlwind of steamy images: limbs pearled with sweat, a scarlet handprint on a white shoulder blade. The climax of their romance is the one moment of calm, when the montage and cinematography finally relent their frantic pace to observe the lovers dancing, embracing on a deserted dance floor bathed in purple light. With cheesy, irresistible abandon, Denis underlines the two souls’ confluence by having Stuart Staples croon a song whose lyrics contain the film’s title.
In her eighth decade of life, Denis is giving full vent to her romantic side. Vendredi soir (2002), about a meet cute during a traffic jam that culminates in an idyllic one-night stand, long stood as an anomaly in her hard-bitten filmography. Now, in the space of five years, she’s made Un beau soleil intérieur, Avec amour et acharnement, and Stars at Noon, all films that celebrate the loss of self, entailed in what most people would call infatuation but the French call love. Although Denis clearly does not believe in a happy ever after, she nonetheless regards love as essential. Which explains Stars at Noon’s closing line of dialogue, one of the few not lifted from the book, spoken by Trish when the Subteniente returns her passport: “In a way, you were good to me.”
Cannes at 75, Claire Denis, France