Sunday, October 2, 2022

Rum, Sweat and Rain Soaked Love Story in Global South

Stars at Noon (2022) - Denis Stars at Noon Margaret Qualley gives it all in a Claire Denis's Nicaragua set political intrigue, Stars at Noon, based on Denis Johnson's novel from the 1980s. In order to frame this in context, one has to wonder the filmmaker's intent on setting it in the now - during Covid 19 era. The Sandinista Revolution by FSLN versus the US backed Contra made Nicaragua the literal hell on earth in the 80s, which Johnson personally observed to write about, first conceived as a nonfiction then in fictional form.

Some forty years later, Ortega is still in charge as he serves the 4th term as the president, the economy is still in shambles, corruption and military/police oppression on activists are still being widely reported. The US intelligence and international conglomerate operatives are still very much present, and on the lookout for neighboring Costa Rica and other nations in Central America for possible disturbances. As she explored the white privilege and colonialist mentality still present in Africa with White Material, one can read Denis's new film through those eyes - a pervasive influence of the Global North playing out in an old, tired, cat-and-mouse international intrigue set in Central America, John le Carré style.

Qualley plays Trish, a self-proclaimed journalist who might have had noble intentions in coming to Nicaragua, but now marooned in sweltering purgatory with her resources cut off and passport confiscated, survives by turning tricks on a local law enforcement and political small potatoes for any types of favor, influence, money (both cordóbas and dollars), shampoo, air conditioner or just a decent shower. In her tiny bareback summer dress, she is always guzzling copious amount of rum and throwing Karen tantrums when her Spanish fails to communicate. She meets Daniel (Joe Alwyn) at a bar in the Inter-Continental Hotel, the bastion for all the white guests. Daniel says he works for an oil company executive. Giving him a tip that the sleek local interest he was meeting is a Costa Rican undercover cop, she hooks up with Daniel, and together, they move into a squalid motel Trish is staying in. They both know that they are in over their heads in a foreign country and they need to get out the dodge before they get arrested or worse, killed. It turns out the unassuming CIA agent (Benny Safdie) she meets on the road, wants Daniel and offers Trish safe passage to the Costa Rican border.

Qualley's wide-eyed, frizzy haired Trish, spitting out ridiculously hard-boiled noir lines is a revelation. If this film doesn't make her a big star I don't know what will. Alwyn is adequate as a hunky whitebread love interest, just to be dragged around by his nose. And Safdie is fantastic as cunning G-man. Eric Gautier's energetic cinematography skillfully captures the oppressing tropical climate and humidity glistening on Qualley's skin.

Stars at Noon doesn't quite work as a global intrigue espionage thriller, nor does it as a Claire Denis film. It's too old fashioned and plot and dialog heavy. Nevertheless, I can see the merit in Denis's comment on the pervasiveness of white colonialism in Central America where idealism and good intentions has gone to die. But it's an enjoyable ride in that 'rum, sweat and rain soaked, sexy love story in the jungle way' and I don't mind it.