Stars At Noon

Review by Willard Manus

The title is enigmatic and so is the film.
Three foreigners caught up in the political hell of Nicaragua. That’s a quick summary of what STARS AT NOON is all about. What exactly they are doing there is rarely made explicit, so stingy is the screenplay with motivation and explanation. It’s left to the audience to fill in the blanks and make the story comprehensible.

The main character, Trish, (the dynamic Margaret Qualley), is the most clearly drawn. She’s American–-young, feisty, and hard-drinking (she swills rum like water). We learn that she came to Nicaragua as a human rights worker, then tried to make it as a freelance journalist, only to learn that no one was interested in her work, as evidenced by a telephone call during which she is profanely rejected by a New York editor (played by an uncredited John C. Reilly).

You’d think that a tough, hip gal like Trish would have realized that Nicaragua was a dead end. Instead she hangs on there, without money or passport (it’s been confiscated for some obscure reason). She’s avoided prison until now, thanks to her protector, an elderly government official known only as The Vice-President. She has become his mistress, trading sex with him for money and favors.

Trish also sleeps with various other Nicaraguan officials, including a cop and a secret-serviceman. She also goes to elegant bars to pick up foreigners willing to spend fifty bucks or more for an hour in the sack. One of them is Daniel De Haven (Joe Alwyn), a young, bearded Englishman, who has come to Nicaragua to do... what? It isn’t until at least an hour into the film that we learn he is working for a foreign oil company. Is he trying to nail down the rights to a new oil field? Or is he trying to get his hands on the funds in a frozen bank account? Your guess is as good as mine.

One thing is obvious, though: De Haven is clueless about the way things work in 1984 Nicaragua (which is embroiled in a civil war between the Contras and the left-wing government). He doesn’t speak Spanish, has few high-level contacts, and is devoid of street-smarts. Why his company picked him to do this tough, tricky job is one of the film’s many mysteries. He isn’t even savvy enough to stay clear of Trish once he discovers she’s under surveillance by the authorities.

Problem is, she’s incredibly good in bed. Their many sex scenes are long, explicit and steamy, the best things in the film. He falls in lust with her and can’t give her up–-not even when his life is threatened by one of her insanely jealous boyfriends.

Then an outsider turns up, (played by Nick Romano). He’s American, mysterious and sinister. You think CIA at first, but it’s finally revealed that he too is in the oil business, working for a rival multi-national corporation.

Unlike De Haven, he has considerable pull with the Nicaraguan government, to such an extent that he’s allowed to take command of a border checkpoint. How an American could be given such power in a communist country is never explained.

The strongest thing in STARS AT NOON (aside from its sex scenes) is its atmosphere, its chilling depiction of wartime Nicaragua. There are armed soldiers everywhere. There is poverty, fear and paranoia on the faces of its citizens, shortages of food and drink in the shops and restaurants. This is a dismal, bleak, beleaguered society and STARS AT NOON holds nothing back in showing just how grim life is there. Unfortunately, writer/director Claire Denis hasn’t been able to match those graphic images with anything resembling a coherent and credible story.