Thursday, October 13, 2022

A murky drama set in Nicaragua

  In Stars at Noon, director Claire Denis' latest serving of ambiguous drama, Margaret Qualley plays Trish, an American  journalist stranded in Nicaragua. Having had her passport seized,  Trish relies on a government connection and on her personal wiles to survive. She raises cash by charging for sex, primarily with a Nicaraguan soldier.
   Daniel (Joe Alwyn), an Englishman in Nicaragua for something vaguely approximating business, pays to have sex with Trish, whom he meets at a bar in his upscale hotel. The two develop a relationship. Both face undefined dangers. Both want to leave the country.
  As the movie unfolds, Trish drinks enough rum to sink a pirate ship, walks in the rain, and acts if she has an inside track on the mostly unseen political machinations that surround her. The country is on the eve of an election, which may or may not happen.
   For his part, Daniel smokes a lot of cigarettes and murmurs about this and that without revealing much about himself. For most of the movie, he's stuck wearing a white suit, even after he's caught in the rain. The suit makes it impossible for him to blend with the locals, which may be part of the point.
   It falls to Denis' two principal actors to fill in narrative blank spots with suggestion. Qualley has the showier, live-wire role, but both actors convey the difficulties of foreigners trying to survive and perhaps capitalize on the chaos of a volatile country.
    Based on a 1984 novel by Denis Johnson, the story has been updated to take place during the height of the covid pandemic, which means the characters carry masks. They sometimes even wear them.
    Eventually, Trish and Daniel make a run for the border encountering more vaguely defined figures as they flee for safety. A CIA agent? Another businessman? A representative of the Costa Rican secret police? All of the above?
     Dripping with atmosphere and sweat, Denis's movie captures the dislocation of  "international lives" being lived by people who would have done well to stay home. She allows the sex scenes to linger, evidence of desire and a desperate need to connect.
     At 137 minutes in length, soaks the movie in atmosphere. 
    Ordinary Nicaraguans (taxi drivers, a motel owner, and waiters) relate to these two bereft characters with varying amounts of helpfulness. Everyone seems to want US dollars instead of Nicaraguan Cordobas.
     I've appreciated the ambiguity of much of Denis' previous work (most recently Both Sides of the Blade) but Stars at Noon tries to turn a quasi-thriller into some sort of statement about ... well ... I'm not sure about what. 
    Sometimes, more clarity is needed to break through what feels like a self-imposed fog.

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