Claire Denis is one of the most beloved filmmakers in international art-house cinema, but in a career that has stretched across three decades, her films haven’t crossed over to a mainstream English-speaking audience. The closest she got up until now was with High Life in 2018, a science-fiction horror drama starring Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche. Now she is at the Cannes Film Festival with The Stars at Noon, which would appear, at first glance, to be even closer to a commercial genre movie. Adapted from the acclaimed novel by Denis Johnson, this is a romantic thriller set in the tropics, with two hot young Hollywood stars, Margaret Qualley and Joe Alwyn, an undercurrent of danger, and so many torrid sex scenes that it’s quite a surprise when the actors have their clothes on.
Johnson’s novel was set in Nicaragua in 1984. The film version is set in the present day, with Covid tests and face masks in abundance, but Denis is deliberately vague about whether the characters are in Nicaragua or some other Central American country. Indeed, she’s deliberately vague about most things. Qualley plays Trish, who was once an idealistic campaigning journalist, but now seems to be stuck in this cesspool (her words) with no job, no purpose, and no money except for what she gets by sleeping with various militia officers and government ministers. Her home is a motel on the crumbling outskirts of a city with a shortage of luxury goods, but no shortage of armed soldiers on every corner. “I’m going home tomorrow,” she declares, “or the day after”. You get the feeling that she’s been saying that for a long time.
One night in the Inter-Continental Hotel bar, she spots Alwyn’s character, Daniel, a brooding loner who claims to be working for an oil company, but keeps a gun stashed in his hotel bathroom. He wears a white suit which is obviously going to get a lot more stained and crumpled as the film goes on. Both Qualley and Alwyn are a little too fresh-faced and youthful to be the jaded, well-travelled lost souls they’re supposed to be, but Qualley throws herself into the role with firecracker energy, and the gravel-voiced, chain-smoking Alwyn does a serviceable audition to be the next James Bond.
The day after they’ve spent the night together in his hotel room, she spots him again, this time having a breakfast meeting with a businessman (Danny Ramirez). Or is he? Trish works out that the other man is a Costa-Rican policeman, and that he’s planning to arrest Daniel at the very least. The lovers have to get out of the country as quickly and quietly as possible, and so they immediately spring into action. Well, no, not really. What they actually do is go back to her motel room for lots of sweaty sex, popping out on occasion to knock back industrial quantities of booze. Take the title of Denis’ much-loved 2008 drama, 35 Shots of Rum, add an equivalent amount of beer, and you’ll have some idea of how much alcohol they get through.