Early in “Stars at Noon,” Yank journalist Trish gazes wistfully at a yellowed black-and-white photo of Nicaraguan resistance fighters, framed and tacked to the wall of the grim Managua hotel room where she’s having businesslike intercourse. “Young rebels used to be so sexy,” she sighs. It’s a direct jab at the unformidable army lieutenant on top of her in that moment, but also a callback to what could be perceived from afar as a more romantic, mysterious age of global political unrest — the kind that fueled the novels of Graham Greene and films like “The Year of Living Dangerously,” an alluring realm of fiction that perhaps propeled Trish so far from home in the first place. Claire Denis revives that sort of grimy glamor in this humid, intoxicating American-abroad thriller, but she’s not nearly so naive or nostalgic as her young protagonist.
Updating the late Denis Johnson’s 1984 novel “The Stars at Noon” to the COVID-beset present, the now article-free “Stars at Noon” shows that young rebels — and officials, and outlaws, and shady international oilmen, and drifters who don’t know exactly what they are — can still be very sexy indeed. Not least when played with teasing, taciturn, ten-drinks-down chemistry by performers as gorgeous as Margaret Qualley and Joe Alwyn, albeit with salt on their skin and dirt under their nails. But the world was unattractively corrupt in 1984, and remains so now: Johnson’s prediction in the novel of a “hyper-new, all-leftist future coming at us at the rate of rock-n-roll” hasn’t come to pass.
In shifting the author’s tangled narrative of political hostilities, corporate espionage and romantic salvation nearly four decades forward from its original milieu, Denis and co-writers Lea Mysius and Andrew Litvack haven’t had to change an awful lot — though the novel’s political particulars have receded somewhat, while the romantic ones have shimmied forward. It’s sexier that way, after all.
30 or 40 years ago, Johnson’s novel might have made for a glossy romantic thriller from a major studio, sold on the spectacle of hot A-list stars and exotic Central American locales — and viewed that way, “Stars at Noon” might seem a surprising project for veteran French sensualist Denis, whose most genre-inclined projects have still been bigger on tactile detailing than nail-biting setpieces. But it’s also not hard to see what drew her to Johnson’s brief, brisk book, which dwells on the psychology of a white outsider in a land shaking off a history of colonization and foreign dependence — a theme that Denis, raised in colonial West Africa, has tackled in films from her debut “Chocolat” to 2009’s incendiary “White Material.” The American setting and perspective may be new for her; the rest, from the film’s bristling, dust-licked atmospherics to its frank, corporeal eroticism to yet another shivery, enveloping score by longtime collaborators Tindersticks, is vintage Denis.
“White Material” could, in fact, have been an alternate title for “Stars at Noon,” describing as it does the outfit worn by posh soft-spoken Englishman Daniel (Alwyn) for almost the entire, unhurried runtime of the film: a perfectly cut summer suit in ivory linen, the very symbol of Western colonialists swanning with cool entitlement through lands where they don’t belong. It’s so immaculate you can practically hear the countdown to the moment it gets grievously stained, with mud first and blood second. A consultant for a British oil company, in Nicaragua on business he doesn’t care to disclose — he effectively passes covert industrial information between rival countries — Daniel conveys, at least initially, a serene sense of purpose as he strolls Managua’s shabby streets and contrastingly sleek hotel lobbies.
In reality, he’s as helplessly adrift as hot mess Trish (Qualley), a Washington D.C. transplant who claims to be an international journalist, though it’s been a long while since she had a commission. Effectively stranded in the country, holed up in a fleapit motel and chugging through bottles of rum a day, she survives by sleeping with visiting suits and local officials for hard-to-come-by dollars — more precious than her stash of black-market córdobas. When she and Daniel meet one evening in a hotel bar, a straightforward transaction swiftly becomes an inexorable attraction. Unable to part ways, their respectively fraught situations — she’s struggling to regain her passport from prickly Nicaraguan authorities, he appears to be trailed by Costa Rican cops and CIA agents — fuse into shared, redoubled peril, and they make a joint do-or-die dash for the border.
The stakes are high, the suspense suitably heated, yet “Stars at Noon” doesn’t have its foot relentlessly on the pedal. Throughout Trish and Daniel’s impassioned, ill-planned escape, Denis makes time for one characteristically textural, mood-driven pit stop after another: a wander through a fly-bothered street market, the conversation at one point glimpsed through a parade of passing mourners’ umbrellas, or a key confrontation in, of all places, a makeshift COVID-testing site. Eventually, the clock stops altogether for the most Denis-esque flourish of all: a breathlessly sultry slow dance on an empty, sticky, violet-lit nightclub floor, to a claves-heavy title song crooned with gruff yearning by Stuart Staples.
Inheriting a role handed down by Taron Egerton and, before him, previous Denis muse Robert Pattinson, the fair, fine-featured Alwyn is perhaps the ideal physical incarnation of a man described by Trish — in one of many sharp, salty lines gifted her by the script — as “so white it’s like fucking a cloud.” He’s a deliberately gauzy, hard-to-hold character, played in aptly, alluringly secretive fashion by the actor. But Trish is the plum part here, and a sensational Qualley — cycling through a ragged thrift-store wardrobe, with a lavish halo of dark curls that can’t help but recall her mother, Andie MacDowell — grabs it with both callused hands.
Trish fancies herself a worldly femme fatale in some respects, but her immature, Ugly American desperation betrays her time and again. Qualley’s wry, whirling performance gets that conflict precisely, from the hardboiled dialogue she delivers with just the right touch of affected cool — Trish enjoys her own savoir-faire too much for it to be entirely natural — to the gawky walk that only slides into a strut when she remembers. In carrying this hefty film, Qualley joins an auspicious club of Denis’s selected leads, among them Vincent Lindon, Isabelle Huppert and recent three-timer Juliette Binoche. Wherever the filmmaker goes from here — and between this, the charged chamber drama of “Both Sides of the Blade” and the freaky sci-fi experimentalism of “High Life,” who can really say — one rather hopes she takes the 27-year-old star with her. The young rebels, it turns out, are looking pretty good.