Criterion Prediction #277: Stars at Noon, by Alexander Miller
Title: Stars at Noon
Director: Claire Denis
Synopsis: An unlikely romance between a drifting American journalist (Qualley) and an elusive English businessman (Alwyn) strikes up amid rising political tensions in Nicaragua while an enthusiastic CIA agent (Safdie) is tracking their attempts to flee the area.
Critique: Just like starting a Denis film, it’s hard to find a jumping-off point when writing about her movies. There’s just so much ground to cover and so many themes to explore. She’s so expert in unmooring and disorienting the viewer that it’s challenging to find a place to get a grip on what it is you want to talk about. And in that wonderful, liminal otherness, Stars at Noon pops with ethereal sumptuousness. We’re plopped in a hot, humid and hostile territory where armed soldiers hector you in public bathrooms, air conditioning is a commodity, the sex is pretty blah and even John C. Reilly feels like an alien. Trish, brought to life with refreshing vitality by Qualley, is an evolution of the model Denis protagonist. She’s a stranger in a strange land, has an awareness of transactional desire, offers very little in the ways of audience assurance and is a marvel in terms of presence. The democratization of beauty and the gaze redirection is just as potent as anything Denis has ever committed to screen. That familiar feeling of wandering wanting permeates every hazy corner of Stars at Noon and, just when you think the film has announced itself, another layer gurgles up from underfoot. We veer into this incongruent miasma of ugly modernity, face masks and tropical shirts, then we start seeing more active combat, assault rifles, burning vehicles, armed checkpoints… We identify a recognizable present-day conflict. Still, they keep talking about hard borders, passports and press credentials and it takes us back to the classic Hollywood model of a Casablanca-esque romantic adventure film. But Denis doesn’t present her work with easy, paint-by-numbers association. She makes you work for it. And we’re all the better for that. Colonialism and displacement, two thematic mainstays in her movies, are a guiding force but there’s something else going on with Stars at Noon. It’s a little drunk, kinda sexy, laden with spurts of exciting, dangerous, scary violence and Denis plays it (and us) with her reticent sense of humor. Don’t try to figure it out. Just breathe it in.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: This is a pretty obvious contender, given the director’s place in the Criterion Collection and the fact that Stars at Noon is also an A24 release. It seems like this is only a matter of time. Wouldn’t this and Uncut Gems make a good double feature?