It's been unclear just how the COVID-19 pandemic would be tastefully incorporated into films – some of the earliest attempts at this, such as 2020's clumsy 'Songbird', came along before the proverbial dust had begun to settle on the world – but we should already be considering 'Stars at Noon' the gold standard of pandemic picture-making. While its source material, the previously deemed "unadaptable" novel of the same name by Denis Johnson was published 34 years before it began, director Claire Denis ('Both Sides of the Blade') uses the pandemic to further spin out the novel's ideas of helplessness and lack of agency in some of the harshest geopolitical climates.
Caught up in the corrupt landscape of present-day Nicaragua (partially through bad luck, partially through her own journalistic pursuits) is the twenty-something Trish (Margaret Qualley, TV's 'Maid'), whose desperate efforts to return home to America are becoming increasingly futile. Her editors refuse to give her work, her passport has been seized, and her days are filled with begging, borrowing and stealing to get by, which are made even harder by the increased obstacle of tricky international travel during the pandemic. Not even a sexual relationship with a military member can buy her goodwill with local officials, who were less than happy with her last piece on politically-motivated kidnappings and killings in their country. Not only is she isolated, as everyone was thanks to COVID-19, she's also desperate. Her attempts to escape have led her to selling her body for US$50 dollars a pop, and her hustle soon lands her in the bed of Daniel (Joe Alwyn, 'The Souvenir Part II'), a strikingly charming but secretive British man staying in a fancy nearby hotel. It's unclear what Daniel is doing in Nicaragua – the gun Trish finds in his possessions while ransacking his bathroom for hotel toiletries contradicts his soft demeanour – but that doesn't stop Trish and Daniel from falling for each other, even as it's increasingly obvious that his safety is at risk.
As thick as the story may sound, make no mistake; 'Stars at Noon' is not a plot-driven film; the above premise takes place in the first 40 minutes of its 135-minute runtime. As with many of Denis' films, 'Stars at Noon' is elliptical, frustratingly so at times, more preoccupied with the sensations and salaciousness of a romantic thriller than with the typically elaborate plot entanglements of the subgenre. This is reflected in the downright unlikeable natures of Trish and Daniel; I have never witnessed two on-screen characters so lost in exploring each other's bodies even in the face of immense danger. It takes a talented actor to play and sell an unlikeable central character (a must for many of Denis' protagonists), and Qualley and Alwyn both hit it out of the park. Despite this, they struggle to find a spark together, a move that may turn audiences off given how central the romance is to the story, but in fact really works. Denis deliberately keeps audiences in the dark on just how much of their relationship is driven by an actual spark, or the mutual experience of a dire situation, or their perceived value in the other to improve their predicament, or the desperate need to cling onto someone while everything else falls apart. All of this is heightened by the obvious fact that neither Trish nor Daniel are being totally honest with the other, and their relationship becomes a waiting game of how long it will take to implode.
As with many of Denis' films, 'Stars at Noon' is elliptical, frustratingly so at times, more preoccupied with the sensations and salaciousness of a romantic thriller than with the typically elaborate plot entanglements of the subgenre.
The source material is prime real estate for the thematic sandbox Denis has played in for the entirety of her career - colonialism, displacement, and the nihilism that comes with dealing with circumstances outside of one's control – but this time, she amplifies the tension by using the pandemic as a backdrop for the story. No other film scene this year has sent my blood pressure higher than Trish and Daniel visiting a COVID-19 testing site on the border of Costa Rica. Like her leads, Denis is also far more occupied with the feel of these worlds, rather than fleshing them out with just why Daniel is pulling Trish into sauced-up car chases through the streets of Nicaragua. This is of course, a very deliberate move on Denis' part, but in choosing to dance around the waters instead of wading into directly into them, 'Stars at Noon' loses some of its potential bite that would further help to justify its existence.
While its sprawling, slow and opaque nature may turn many audiences off, 'Stars at Noon' is a sensual and surprisingly humorous experience for those willing – and able to – get on its wavelength. Don't be surprised if it grows on you in the days and weeks after realising what the film actually is, and not what many expect it to be.