There are many ways to characterise the work of French auteur Claire Denis, she of a formidable, decade-spanning oeuvre that finds bitter romanticism in outcasts on the fringes of society. Her work is erotic, sensuous, unafraid to obfuscate, willing to wander into treacherous or difficult territory. Having grown up in French colonial Africa, Denis’ work often features a lingering shadow of colonisation, of people finding a home somewhere that they don’t necessarily belong. Denis is also, to my mind, especially adept at crafting potent narratives around characters who, for all intents and purposes, are brats. In both of her films of 2022, Both Sides of the Blade and now Stars at Noon, the central figures are women who are often frustrating, whiny, even aggravating, and yet we feel compelled by them, even sympathetic to their jumped-up grievances.
Winner of the Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, French auteur Claire Denis’ latest work, one of two to release this year, is a woozy, sweltering erotic thriller set in a purgatorial, pandemic-stricken Nicaragua. An adaptation of the novel by Denis Johnson, it is a wry continuance of Denis’ occasionally frustrating but always beguiling late-period body of work.
In Stars at Noon, this is Margaret Qualley’s Trish, a wayward young journalist stranded in Nicaragua, visa-less and with passport confiscated. With little chance of making it back to America, living off a quid-pro-quo sexual relationship with a Nicaraguan official and a dwindling reserve of black market currency, Trish is in a spot which, we come to learn, is almost entirely of her own making. Stubborn to a fault and impulsive, Qualley impressively inhabits Trish is a high-voltage tower of precarity, unwashed and dishevelled, fumbling her way through her day-to-day, attempting to evade arrest. When she crosses the path of Daniel, a shady oil analyst played by Joe Alwyn, a romance quickly ensues in which it is never entirely clear how much either is manipulating the other for their own gain.
That shadow of colonialism is still present, in the very telling of a story of two white lovers in a conflict-stricken South American environment they seek to exploit for their own gain – but it’s quieter here, less of a concern than the desperation and passion of two lonely individuals. Denis’ late-career work has been characterised by a milder tone, less formally formidable than in her early days (as evidenced by her finest work, Beau Travail). The exception to this rule is High Life, which presented as a convincing star-vehicle for Robert Pattinson while still arriving shot through with the abstraction and sensuousness that characterises this most unabashedly body-focussed of filmmakers. Apart from David Cronenberg, few modern auteurs share Denis’ fascination with the sweaty, fleshy, decaying aspects of the things that carry us through this world, and Stars at Noon is luridly physical. Trish seems often toddler-esque, tottering through muddy and humid streets with a gait of an aimless kid after a telling off. When she and Daniel fall into bed, Denis is fascinated by the way the sheets stick to their hips and shoulders, the way a hand leaves an impression on the other’s back. It weaves a hypnotic, woozy spell that evokes the drifting unreliability of the film at large. The particulars of the film are slippery – exposition is not Denis’ forte, after all – but Denis is a classic example of a filmmaker whose work is there to be felt, not necessarily understood. No one makes a film quite like her, and for that, we are very fortunate.
Stars at Noon is in cinemas now.
Stars at Noon
Movie title: Stars at Noon (Denis, 2022)
Movie description: Winner of the Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, French auteur Claire Denis’ latest work, one of two to release this year, is a woozy, sweltering erotic thriller set in a purgatorial, pandemic-stricken Nicaragua. An adaptation of the novel by Denis Johnson, it is a wry continuance of Denis’ occasionally frustrating but always beguiling late-period body of work.
Date published: November 17, 2022
Author: Claire Denis, Andrew Litvack, Léa Mysius, Denis Johnson (Novel)
Director(s): Claire Denis
Actor(s): Margaret Qualley, Joe Alwyn, Benny Safdie
Genre: Drama, Romance, Thriller