Slow fans, flat Coke, a broken air conditioner. Strong rum, quick sex, a pair of leather slides. Gated business hotels with boundless buffets. A man in a rusted taxi who’s willing to speed. Stars at Noon, the latest from Claire Denis, floods us with a stream of signifiers as seemingly at odds with each other as the film’s enamored protagonists: Trish (Margaret Qualley), an American journalist turned sex worker who is stranded in Nicaragua, and Daniel (Joe Alwyn), an Englishman with shady business dealings in the region. Based on a 1986 novel by Denis Johnson, which is set after the country’s 1984 revolution, the film follows Trish as she beds a series of military and political players with the goal of making enough money, or connections, to regain her passport and head back to the United States. Rawboned and wild eyed, Qualley makes for a convincing American too proud to show any of her “johns” just how much she needs them.
Denis is perhaps at her best reveling in the heat, and chill, of erotic exchanges. Power is never just power. Stumbling upon Daniel at a slick Managua bar, Trish’s fortunes seem to look up. Rich, wed, and evasive, he’s the perfect john — and, possibly, ticket out of town. After their tryst, she’s counting the US dollars he’s pulled from his wallet. In Denis’s refreshingly unsentimental depiction of sex work, passionate eros and dispassionate exchange insistently coexist, as do their affective opposites.
If compelling on the personal level, the film often feels historically convoluted. Given that Managua has been entirely rebuilt in the 40 years since the rise and fall of the Sandinistas, Denis shot the film in Panama to more accurately capture the novel’s ambiance. While the tropical swelter and urban detritus feel authentic enough — and surely sate the most ravenous of Denisian appetites for gritty foreign tumult — the director’s choice to adapt the novel’s plot to the present day feels a bit misguided. Rife with social distancing placards, smartphones, and SUVs, Managua doesn’t seem like a place where a white American woman could get stranded as she might in 1986, just as it feels unlikely that asking to bum a cigarette from a British businessman could serve as a pick-up line at a fancy bar.
Asked about the film’s contemporary setting at this year’s New York Film Festival, Denis cited “unrest” surrounding Nicaragua’s presidential election and the fact that “there is still violence” in the country’s streets. But to conflate intermittent ferment with the aftermath of a socialist revolution suggests that, when it comes to regions less “developed” than wealthy first-world nations, it doesn’t matter when the movie is set: Central America, Denis implies, is fraught with issues today that are interchangeable with those during the Cold War.
Just as sex with a revolutionary does not make one revolutionary, a penchant for setting films in developing countries does not make Denis a resident expert. As the rain batters the muddy roads taking Trish and Daniel to the border, the two are just as romantic — and doomed — as any lovers whose intimacy is borne on the run, whose union feels all the more pure, and inspiring, for that reason. But, likewise, just as erotic power is a matter of particulars, so too is a political climate the outcome of specifics. Denis’s heedlessness in this regard, especially at this stage of her career, is disappointing.
Stars at Noon is currently available on streaming services.