Stars at Noon: The Last Thing She Wanted, by David Bax
It would be incorrect to describe Claire Denis‘ Stars at Noon as a “Covid movie” or a “pandemic movie.” Those elements are not what the film is about. At the same time, though, they are not mere background noise or window dressing either. At one point, the need to get tested before crossing a border into another country becomes a story beat, a tension-raising complication. Like everything in Stars at Noon, a film so fully realized in its flawless final form as to seem deceptively easy, the pandemic is simply there because it’s there. It has to be.
Stars at Noon is, by any measure, a noir, with a down on her luck journalist (Margaret Qualley‘s Trish) finding herself more and more deeply involved in a dangerous underworld (in this case, economic espionage being carried out by foreign powers in a developing nation) after being seduced by a sexy stranger (Joe Alwyn‘s Daniel). There’s even a jazzy score by Tindersticks to set the sultry mood.
Also like many a noir, Stars at Noon has a plot that is as knottily convoluted as it is ultimately beside the point. But it wasn’t The Big Sleep I found myself thinking of while watching this tale of a woman mired in the nefarious actions of various governments while stranded in Latin America. Those plot specifics have more in common with Dee Rees‘ flabbergastingly underrated adaptation of Joan Didion’s The Last Thing He Wanted. Stars at Noon is probably easier to parse than Rees’ film but, as I said, the story isn’t really that important.
Focus instead on the immediateness and tangibility of the place. Denis shot Panama for Nicaragua so you can’t give credit for verisimilitude. But that doesn’t mean there’s not a respect for the location and the region. Stars at Noon is by no means a travelogue. On the contrary, it feels more real and immersive than any guided tour could be.
You can practically feel the heat (one of the main things that attracts Trish to Daniel in the first place is that his hotel room has air conditioning). More than that, though, you can almost taste the food, the drinks (oh, so many drinks) and even the sweat they pick up off of one another’s bodies in bed or wherever else the impulse strikes them.
And, in one scene in particular, you can even feel the rain. When Trish and Daniel are ducking in and out of taxis and between the stalls at a sprawling market in an attempt to evade the shadowy representatives of one agency or another, it suddenly starts to rain. For all I know–and most likely–this is a practical effect. But everything in Stars at Noon feels so organically inevitable that it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the skies just opened up mid-take and they went with in. In fact, I think I’d like to believe it.