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Stars at Noon
Sex, Lies, and Purgatory in Central America
Denis Johnson’s novel The Stars at Noon is set in 1980s Nicaragua during Sandinista rule. Claire Denis’s woozy and erratic adaptation, sans the “the” in the title, updates the era to the early part of the Covid-19 pandemic while muddying the specificity of the locale. This isn’t Nicaragua so much as “Nicaragua,” a clammy, rum-and-rain-soaked purgatory in which down-on-her-luck journalist Trish (Margaret Qualley) and in-over-his-head oil company consultant Daniel (Joe Alwyn) find themselves despairingly, and hornily, trapped.
The duo’s first interaction is pure Denis: Trish spots Daniel at the opposite end of a hotel bar where they’re the only patrons. The bartender is masked and the building, guarded round the clock by armed soldiers, has been mostly repurposed as a hospital and temporary morgue for Covid patients. Save for the luscious glow on the two leads—boozy beacons of lust and life amid all the soul-sapping death—the lighting is chillingly sterile. Adding to the aura of emotional disconnect, Denis and cinematographer Eric Gautier wreak havoc with spatial geography. Trish and Daniel often appear to be sitting in completely incongruous positions between shots, though their conversation proceeds normally. Words flow despite bodies being unmoored.
Denis’s films, including White Material and Bastards, often entwine sex and politics, though there’s something particularly challenging about the mix in Stars at Noon given the opacity of Trish and Daniel’s intentions. They have a shared motive: to get out of a hostile foreign land—or, at least, one that they both perceive to be so. But beyond that and their intense physical attraction to each other, nothing else about who they are or what they want is ever clear.
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