Towards the end of Claire Denis’s Stars At Noon, Benny Safdie’s CIA agent describes Central America as a “gambler’s paradise”. He says this with a smile and unconcerned attitude. Margaret Qualley’s journalist Trish looks at him with scorn. These two individuals know enough about this region that if it is a “gambler’s paradise”, then the house is rigged. History shows outside interests always control events in Central American countries to their favor.
The country in this case is Nicaragua on the eve of an election. Potentially, the country is on the verge of revolution. One of Claire Denis’s many skills as a storyteller is making her audience aware of foreign political situations. Posters adorn buildings saying “No more abuse of power!” as we see soldiers patrol streets of an unnamed Nicaraguan city. Guards and private police stand both inside and outside hotels.
These are empty streets though. There’s the occasional child or street vendor. The luxury hotel in this film barely has guests. All of this happens during the height of the Covid pandemic. Throughout the film we see signs documenting precautions and hand washing techniques. Most of the people in this wear masks. Denis is not a storyteller to ignore a situation like a global pandemic.
The focus of the film though falls on two people. It’s possible they came to Nicaragua because they wanted to gamble on possibility. Margaret Qualley’s Trish Johnson went as a journalist wanting to cover missing people. When we’re introduced to her, her press card is revoked and she’s sleeping with people to get enough money to leave. From the first scene where Trish tries to avoid her john/protector Subtiente Verga, we know she’s in too deep. Yet her attitude is always externally playful. Her editor, played by John C. Reilly in a very brief role, won’t pay for her to go Costa Rica. He already put money into her. Why is Trish writing about missing people and murders? She’s writes for a luxury hotel magazine. Trish always thinks she’ll plead her way out of whatever situation she’s in with her editor or a vice minister not realizing, maybe not caring, she’s only putting herself in more trouble.
Joe Alwyn’s Daniel DeHaven is in Nicaragua on behalf of Watts Oil. The company thinks there might be oil reserves that can be exploited. Me may actually be the agent of a nameless foreign power. Either way, DeHaven is too entitled to realize he’s being exploited by two people. First, Trish sleeps with him for money she’ll use to potentially get out of the country (she won’t). He doesn’t think twice on it. As he tells her, he regularly has affairs when he travels. This is nothing.
The other person is a man he thinks is a local who will help him in his situation. The man turns out to be a Costa Rican cop. Claire Denis makes it very clear the Costa Ricans are in the pocket of the United States. It’s a puppet government. The Nicaraguans look at the country and it’s people with disgust. It’s implied but never spoken that the US may have a hand influencing the upcoming election. They’ve done it before. Daniel either doesn’t know his history or doesn’t care. Daniel though seems to think he’s on some adventure. A low rent James Bond who can bed any woman and whose bosses will get him out of any trouble. He forgets if captured that governments disavow knowledge of their agents.
However, Trish and Daniel can’t keep away from each other. With her other resources seemingly exhausted, Trish gambles on him as her way out of the country. They become romantically entangled with each other. Denis frames their scenes together as close ups, neither individual sharing a frame with the other. It’s rare the two are in the same shot. Only in sex scenes with the bodies becoming abstract shapes highlight their entanglement both physically.
It’s possible though their connection isn’t entirely emotional. It’s not brought up frequently but Daniel is a married man. That knowledge hangs over his and Trish’s relationship. There is also the knowledge with the audience that Trish likely just needs him to leave before the election. She knows the people currently protecting her may be gone soon. No matter if she actually has feelings for him, Trish always has her own interests at heart. Maybe he’s using her because she knows the area better than he does. There is passion in this relationship but there’s no true intimacy.
Trish loses this bet on getting out. Daniel is a person of interest. Trish should have known he was a bad bet when she immediately knew his Costa Rican friend is a cop. Instead, hitching her wagon to Daniel costs her the little protection she had in Nicaragua. Soon they’re on the run.
Denis constantly makes their situation precarious. Nicaragua is a volatile place. The currency of choice is the US dollar not the Nicaraguan córdoba. The significance of the dollar hints at who has the real power in this film. By the time Benny Safdie’s CIA agent finally shows up, we already know the US exerts enormous influence on the country even outside. The locals talk about the country with disdain. Even US nationals know not to trust their own country. When she meets the CIA agent, Trish is offered anything and still knows this comes with strings.
It should be no surprise that Trish and Daniel’s story ends badly. This is love born in a revolution. These are feelings born more out of survival than pure physical attraction. They’re simply two strangers possibly using each other for their own needs.
Stars at Noon is Claire Denis’s adaptation of Dennis Johnson’s 1984 novel. That novel takes place during the Sandinista’s revolution. The Nicaragua today has had Daniel Ortega as president for the last 15 years. However, it’s hard to not think of how the US likely had a hand in its current state. This film is anti-American because if it wasn’t, it would be lying