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Stars at Noon (Claire Denis, 2022)

Americans abroad might be any number of things: dissidents, dilettantes, lost souls, or spooks. At times they are easy to pin down, but some of these characters slide between categories—a privilege granted to the citizens of an empire. Somebody’s “here” becomes an “over there,” reduced to a remote backdrop against which to play out a game of power politics—or merely to lose one’s mind.

Claire Denis’s latest, Stars at Noon, is set in this murky milieu, the traditional territory of the espionage thriller. Denis has moved the action of her source text, Denis Johnson’s 1986 novel The Stars at Noon, to the present day rather than the 1980s of the Nicaraguan revolution. American expat and self-proclaimed reporter Trish Johnson (Margaret Qualley) passes through the country like a poltergeist, trying desperately to act on the world around her but decidedly not of it. As is Denis’s way, there is little in terms of backstory, and Trish’s insistence that she is a journalist is belied by the fact that she doesn’t actually do any journalism. What she is good at, however, is surviving.

In Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1936 novel Summer Will Show, a woman at the end of her rope thinks, “If I were a man… I would plunge into dissipation.” Trish has taken the plunge. She spends much of the movie downing glasses of rum (and Qualley is the rare actor capable of performing inebriation without resorting to exaggerated pantomime) to inure herself to the direness of her situation: she lacks a passport and most of her money is in Nicaraguan córdobas, so simply purchasing a ticket home to escape what she calls “hell” is not a possibility. She uses sex to string along a few local powers—a government minister, a sublieutenant—in exchange for half-hearted protection. But these men are petty, jealous, and cowardly, and they cut her loose at the first sign of any real danger.

The danger comes in the form of the taciturn, white-suited Daniel DeHaven (Joe Alwyn), supposedly a British agent of an oil company, who pays Trish for sex one night at the hotel reserved for fancy foreigners. She insists, upon waking, that she has never fallen asleep in someone else’s bed like this before. The two fall for each other, and when Daniel’s mysterious activities concerning the upcoming elections cause him to run afoul of the shadowy men in power, Trish feels compelled to help him. Whether she does so just to get money for a plane ticket from him or out of real affection is unclear. Either way it is a classic trope: boy meets girl, boy nearly gets girl killed.

If there’s one thing that can be said to unite all of Denis’s films—different as they are in plot, setting, and scope—it’s that they all glide. Her movies abide by the logic of half-memories rather than any notion of a three-act structure. In place of plot development, entire lives and worlds are conveyed through glances and unfinished sentences, such that what is left unsaid counts for more than what is said out loud. In White Material (2009), Isabelle Huppert’s irritated toss of her head before she agrees to pay a bribe to pass through an armed checkpoint articulates a set of cultural expectations more persuasively than might any monologue about a colonizer’s right to the land. For her character in the film, a French coffee-plantation owner in Africa, an armed uprising is just a troublesome inconvenience—until it’s far too late to confront the truth.

Stars at Noon struggles in comparison with Denis’s prior works, in that the tone, the looks, and the words of the film do not quite match up. The film is less interested in the shady machinations deciding the fate of Nicaragua than it is in Trish and Daniel’s romance—though to even call it a romance seems a slight overstatement. The two characters are, among other things, the classic colonizers who go to the tropics to lose themselves. What they find in each other is familiarity, a mutual recognition. They proceed to confuse sex with tenderness, and tenderness with love. It is a reasonable error. Theirs is the kind of sex one might have after a funeral: manic, done to spite death, with hands clawing hard enough to leave marks, if only to insist on the reality of a living, breathing body. In this case, the funeral might be theirs.

Like Huppert in White Material, they first respond to the men threatening their lives with petulance, and by the time they do go on the run, it’s clear that, barring a miracle, there’s no viable way out. When the walls close in on the smug, complacent Daniel—somebody freezes his company credit card and checks him out of his hotel, leaving him without his belongings—and he realizes his life is truly at stake, he finally panics. Trish’s small, cheap motel room, where he has come for a drunken liaison, suddenly looks like a dead end. He professes his love while trying to convince her to help him escape. He wouldn’t be the first to say “I love you” when what he means is “don’t leave me.”

Any sense that their escape will be easy evaporates when an unnamed C.I.A. agent (Benny Safdie) shows up suddenly at a roadside restaurant, anticipating Trish’s arrival on her way to the border. Safdie, in agency-standard Hawaiian shirt, exudes an affable, all-American menace. He never makes any outright threats, but it is clear from how he moves through the frame that this is a man who can make others pliant. He asks Trish to sit down with him and then immediately moves them to another table; he tells her to be more polite to the waitstaff and she adds a “please” to her order, albeit with a sarcastic bite. Trish is defiant, but in the end, everyone does what the agent wants.

Stars at Noon stands out in Denis’s oeuvre because it is the closest she has come to making a straightforward thriller. For the first time in her work, the protagonists feel like movie characters. Trish’s street-smart firecracker routine recalls many a femme fatale before her, only she doesn’t quite have the wherewithal to commit to the “fatale” part. She’s playing a high-stakes game with oil companies and the C.I.A.—people die for much less than sheltering a person pursued by those organizations. Daniel plays the dupe, only instead of being set up by the femme, he’s betrayed by other players (including a Costa Rican double agent played by Danny Ramirez) in the fray he has willingly entered. Yet Trish and Daniel, who seem utterly oblivious of the Nicaraguans except when they need some service from them, behave as though only the locals can die in this foreign land.

White Material deals in archetypes, too, but through abstraction. The country of its setting is never named, and the time period is only vaguely deducible from a few technological markers. The film’s imprecision on the level of milieu allows greater room for psychological specificity. Stars at Noon is manifestly of this moment—temperature checks and masks figure prominently in the film—and does not concern American power in Central America generally but in Nicaragua specifically. (President Ortega goes unnamed, but there are allusions to a leader remaining in power indefinitely.) Yet Trish and Daniel have little to say about what has happened in Nicaragua. The C.I.A. agent comes closest to being honest about the situation: Americans and Brits are traipsing around Managua because there are corporations that need certain business arrangements to continue, and spies like him are willing to help make that happen.

For all its misdirections, the spy genre demands a rather dull clarity. Spooks can be killers, but the point of the game is to acquire hard facts that might be deployed to weaken an enemy. Trish and Daniel go back and forth between their domiciles and the border without once realizing that they might be the enemies—not of the American government, but of the people of Nicaragua. At one point, Trish casts a nostalgic glance at a photograph of soldiers from the revolutionary era of the 1980s. She is too young to have any memory of that time, so it makes sense that it might read as a cleaner or more noble struggle. What’s more, that was a struggle where an American might have had a more coherent role. For instance, they could have raised funds for the revolutionaries, as a former New York mayor once did in his youth. Now, any outcome seems like it might redound to the benefit of an oppressor, as the borders between the interests of nations and those of multinationals are increasingly blurred. Stars at Noon is not only a tale of boy-meets-girl, but also of Anglo-Americans-meet-world. As is customary with this latter trope, there’s a body count, and all the dead are Nicaraguan.

Blair McClendon is a writer, editor, and filmmaker. He lives in New York City.