Claire Denis’ latest film is an adaptation of Denis Johnson’s 1984 novel Stars at Noon, which revolves around an unnamed American woman living in Nicaragua during the mid-80s, the period of Sandinista rule. Denis’ version splits the difference between that backdrop and the present day, keeping the action in Nicaragua, and unfolding a political narrative that seems very close to the post-revolutionary period, while placing the Covid-19 pandemic front and centre. Margaret Qualley plays the main character, now christened Trish, an American drifter who’s nominally a journalist, but has her press card revoked in the opening scene. She’s tried to submit freelance articles on murder and missing persons in Nicaragua, but hasn’t had much success, meaning she’s alienated herself from the current government without building much of a support base from the American media establishment. Caught between the United States and Central America, she’s taken to exchanging sex for money, although she hasn’t quite committed to the life of a sex worker either. Instead, she treats sex work like she treats journalism, as makeshift ways of making money that fall short of being consistent professions.
Both of these pursuits constellate around Daniel, a British expatriate played by Joe Alwyn, who she meets in the bar of the Inter-Continental Hotel. Trish is immediately drawn to Daniel, but still charges him for sex, even as her inner journalist doubts his motives as an oil company representative looking to profit off the current political crisis. At times, her burgeoning rapport with Daniel has a mildly investigative bent, as she tries to scope out his intentions for being in Nicaragua, but for the most part she’s content to just settle into their relationship, which depends largely on physical propinquity. They start with a series of steamy one-night stands, which Denis captures through long lingering shots of the textual interplay of their bodies, but soon find themselves bound together in an even more visceral way, as the political situation starts to decline, leaving them both stranded in different but equally precarious positions. At one point, Trish compares sleeping with Daniel to “fucking a cloud, or mist,” and their relationship does indeed play more like an ambience, or an intensified humidity, than a tangible connection – omnipresent and yet totally dependent on their current microclimate.
For the most part the film is also driven by ambience, starting with Trish’s immersive walks through the city, which are set to an evocative jazz-rock score by Tindersticks that often recalls Pat Metheny’s work on Under Fire, another iconic expat film set around the Nicaraguan Revolution. As a vagrant between the current regime and her own media establishment, Trish spends most of her time shuffling between hotels and administrative spaces. These are already transitory spaces in themselves, but they take on an added precarity with the escalating political volatility in the face of an upcoming election period. Less tourists are staying in hotels, while more citizens are turning up at administrative buildings, in an effort to get out of the country, or secure some kind of safe harbour within it. On top of all that, the action seems to be unfolding towards the end of peak Covid, since Trish tends to put on a mask whenever she gets close to these hotels and administrative spaces, which she usually approaches by taxi. Nobody in the film actually contracts Covid, but it’s a continual threat around the fringes of Denis’ mise-en-scenes, and infuses them with an added kick of precarity.
As if this spatial field weren’t transitory enough, Trish doesn’t even tend to spend that much time inside the hotels or administrative buildings that she visits. Instead, she spends most of her time in the vestibules of these already transitory spaces. Although most of the action revolves around the Inter-Continental, we never see a hotel room, or proceed beyond those areas accessible to the general public: driveway, entrance, lobby, bars and restaurants. The film’s ambience is in a constant state of propulsion-repulsion with regards to these thresholds – nearly every plot point is moving us towards them, or taking us away from them, only to return us with a slightly different trajectory. The same spatial logic applies to government buildings too, causing Trish to lose her temper at a security guard who instructs her to leave a passport office by a different (although adjacent) door to the one she entered by. However, these thresholds are most pronounced around the Inter-Continental, since it’s where Trish first meets Daniel, so it quickly comes to stand for the horizon and future of their relationship.
Both Trish and Daniel experience a formative moment when they approach the Inter-Continental by taxi, only to discover something unexpected at the threshold (or that the threshold is itself unexpected). Early in the film, Trish hails a taxi to take her to the hotel, and grows discomforted when the driver appears to be heading in the wrong direction. For a brief beat, it seems like we might be in for an abduction narrative, or a hostage narrative, but the driver simply approaches the hotel from an alternative route, one that throws the driveway (which he enters from the wrong direction) into uncanny relief. Seeing the hotel from this unusual perspective emboldens Trish to strike up a conversation with the first person she meets at the bar – Daniel – and so a rapport begins. Likewise, later in the film, Daniel also charters a taxi to the hotel, and pauses on the threshold, before eventually receding, when the driver points out an undercover Costa Rican cop who seems to be waiting to arrest him.
While Trish and Daniel sleep together on their first meeting, they have to traverse the last bastion of public space inside the Inter-Continental to form an emotional rapport. This is the breakfast buffet, which is situated inside a publically accessible restaurant, but only available to hotel guests, as a sign officiously announces. Seeing Daniel in the restaurant, Trish risks taking food from the buffet, and correctly assumes that he will claim her as his guest, and invite her to a full meal at the restaurant. During this meal, Daniel and Trish talk almost exclusively about the threshold of the hotel, and what is going to happen when he leaves, and enters public space once again. Trish believes that he will be apprehended or followed by the man he was speaking to at the buffet, who she also realises is an undercover Costa Rican cop. This is exactly what happens, as the two depart the hotel, the cop gets in a taxi to follow them, and the private-public cusp of the hotel now expands out into the broader urban continuum.
At this moment, the city becomes entirely fluid, as motifs of water and liquidity flood the screen. The rain starts falling so torrentially that it reduces all visibility from inside the taxi, where Trish relaxes with a bottle of rum, and directs the driver to a market where she can buy shampoo, since she hasn’t washed her hair properly in ages. As the score grows more liquid, inclining towards free jazz, Trish chants “rum and shampoo” over and over again. By the time the rain stops, the whole city has become vestibular, taken on the fluidity of the film’s endless vestibular spaces, propelling Trish into a restless flaneuserie in turn. Since the thresholds of the Inter-Continental and the city’s administrative buildings are so fluid, she can’t stay in any of them for too long without arousing suspicion. As she puts it “I have to keep moving,” although this isn’t the improvised linear movement of a modernist flaneuse, but a more targeted movement towards and away from the threshold of the Inter-Continental, a propulsion-repulsion that sees Trish continually transplanting one trajectory for another, as if trying to find the exact right angle of approach to converge with the threshold itself, and thus hide in plain sight right on the cusp between America and Nicaragua.
This penetrative movement towards and away from the hotel imbues the film with a remarkable erotic charge. While the sex scenes are certainly sensuous, they’re quickly subsumed into Trish’s searching trajectories around the Inter-Continental, which are ultimately so many ways of approaching and receding from Daniel himself, who she needs to keep just distant enough to function as an object of fantasy (her only object of fantasy) as the political situation deteriorates. Hence the second and most erotic act of the film, which occurs after Daniel realises that he has been officially checked out of the hotel without his permission. Fearing government intervention, he and Trish collaborate on a series of ingresses towards the hotel, all of which make the threshold even more volatile, since he’s now approaching it to see whether he even has the right to cross it (or whether it’s safe to cross it), given that his name has been removed from the register by unseen higher forces. In other words, Daniel is now only approaching the threshold to discern what is at stake in crossing the threshold, which draws that threshold into relief as the film’s erotic throughline.
Denis accordingly abstracts the hotel threshold into the dreamiest sequence in the film, and the sequence that gives the film its name. The night after Daniel realises he has been checked out, he and Trish decide to approach the Inter-Continental on foot, to see what they can discern. The furthest they get, however, is a lonely, empty nightclub, bathed in purple light, and scored by a single solitary DJ. The couple slow dance in the violet glow, to a Tindersticks original called “Stars at Noon,” while the imagery of stars at noon also captures the strange temporal disjunction we see here. For there’s no clear sense of how and when the couple decide to stop at the nightclub – just an abrupt shift to a neon space that’s so incongruous that we have to piece the transition together in retrospect. In that sense, this sequence plays like a spiritual sequel to the dance pieces in Beau Travail, functioning as an abstraction of the erotic spirit of the film, and the Inter-Continental threshold, rather than a real time or place.
In a sense, it would be most poetic for the film to end here, much as Beau Travail ends in a nightclub. However, the propulsion-repulsion of the hotel threshold, and the threshold between Trish and Daniel, sends them into an even more extreme trajectory – towards the Costa Rican border, which supplants the Inter-Continental’s vestibular spaces during the last part of the film. That’s a shame, in a way, since the film is essentially a paean to this hotel, or to the experience of lockdown and political turmoil as seen through this hotel, which Denis anatomises as precisely, in her own way, as Fredric Jameson analyses the Westin Bonaventure in his classic study of postmodern space. Whereas a CIA agent played by Benny Safdie adds a new dimension to this closing act, his presence does also clarify that Qualley and Alwyn (especially Alwyn) have a fairly limited range without the physical chemistry of the bedroom scenes and the jazzy ambience of the capital to texture the connective tissue between them.
It makes sense, then, that Denis ends with one more propulsive-repulsive trajectory, as Daniel drives them to the border by car, deliberately punctures a tyre so that they don’t have to show their papers, and then hires a group of mercenaries to float them across the border on the river. I didn’t understand why Daniel couldn’t just approach the mercenaries to begin with, unless it was to get Trish a Covid test at the border, but in a way that doesn’t matter, since this feels like a more formalist gesture – a way of approaching the border twice, from two separate trajectories, and so lean into the fluidity of the Inter-Continental threshold one more time. It makes sense, then, that the final trajectory takes us across the river, and recalls the taxi drive that transforms the capital into a river, since it is this liquid threshold of desire, this erotically charged fluidity, that makes Stars at Noon so entrancing, evocative, hypnotic.