Stars at Noon Claire Denis interview

Claire Denis talks about her new romantic thriller Stars at Noon

The French filmmaker told us about adapting a novel set during the Nicaraguan Revolution, and resetting the story in modern-day Panama.

Claire Denis seems to feel a kind of indifference to plot. The story is in the background. In the foreground are bodies and tightly framed faces with searching expressions and insatiable desires. Stars at Noon is crafted from the same impulse but grafted onto a new continent.

In Denis’s contemporary adaptation of Denis Johnson’s political thriller set in 1980s Nicaragua, Margaret Qualley plays a freelance journalist whose reporting has led to authorities confiscating her passport. But she’s not on assignment and hasn’t been in a while. She sleeps with a young officer (Nick Romano) and an elderly minister (Stephan Proaño) in exchange for much-needed U.S. bills. In a hotel bar, she meets Daniel (a painfully bland Joe Alwyn), an English businessman whose cool exterior disguises mysterious, possibly criminal motivations. Sparks fly. Unlike most of her films, there is a lot of plot in Stars at Noon, but many of the crucial plot mechanics are left off-screen. Narrative tension is mostly gone, but there’s plenty of sexual tension reserved for Trish and Daniel. Their sticky humidity may leave some viewers cold; others will relish the heat.

Seated in front of a dramatic hotel lobby fresco, Denis talked over Zoom about adaptations, shooting in Panama (which stands in for Nicaragua) and her Instagram account. 

(This article contains Stars at Noon spoilers.)

Sarah Foulkes: Denis Johnson’s book is set during the Nicaraguan Revolution. You’ve updated it to the present day, but do you see any parallels between what is happening in Nicaragua now? Even the fact that you couldn’t film there suggests that the leftist future that Johnson anticipated in his book is not yet here. 

Claire Denis: I didn’t know Nicaragua, so I went there. And I knew the history of the Sandinista revolution. It was so powerful and exciting. And when I arrived in Managua, first of all, I saw that the city had changed a lot because there had been bombings. First, during the war. And then there was an earthquake. So the president’s wife, the famous Rosario, made big avenues with giant trees. She transformed the city to erase the traces of the former dictator. But at the beginning, I must say I thought it was pretty good because I could see that he probably wasn’t going to run for re-election. And then the pandemic came, and he decided to run again. And I think there were many, many problems. The army shot the students, and then suddenly the country was closed, and the airport was closed. The vaccines came from Cuba, and the doctors were in Cuba. And so the film insurance company didn’t agree to us shooting there. But the country was completely closed, and the actors could not go there, even a technical crew. And finally, I understood that maybe remaking the Nicaragua of ‘84 in Panama was impossible, even in Nicaragua. And that the pandemic and the fact that Daniel Ortega wanted to run for re-election was enough background for the film. There was no need to bring back Sandino and all that. Also, in Panama, we were very comfortable. We didn’t have the problems that I might have had in Nicaragua.

Benny Safdie and Margaret Qualley in Stars at Noon

SF: Except for U.S. Go Home, you haven’t really ever made a period film, have you? Does that interest you at all? 

CD: Yes? I don’t know. U.S. Go Home depicted the time of my adolescence, so it was mandatory. But a time that I didn’t know? If I could have shot in Managua, Nicaragua, even if the city had changed, 25 years later to put back in the streets of Managua tanks with the Contra? I said to myself; this is too much. I’m not going to like this. And in his story, Denis Johnson describes the meeting of these two people, and he doesn’t tell the story of the Sandinista revolution at all. He tells the story of someone who wants to be a journalist and is there to be a journalist. But in the end, she doesn’t care. What she wants is to leave. Because she can’t write a story. What she wants, this reporter, could go to another war spot. From what I’ve read about the revolution, it’s like the mural behind me — it’s way behind them. 

But projects come, or they don’t. When you’re pitching historical films for platforms and all that, it’s a bit heavy, so I’d rather do something like science fiction.

SF: Your work often addresses themes of “the other” in a foreign land. But what is interesting about Trish in Stars at Noon is that through being with Daniel, she feels much less like an “other” in Nicaragua. She feels like she knows where to go and where not to go. She knows “the exact dimensions of hell,” as she says. Do you feel like her self-sufficiency is kind of false because it’s always being interrupted by him and his lack of street smarts? 

CD: It’s fake. In fact, she hopes he’ll help her because he has money, maybe. And she’s disappointed because she realizes he’s not the businessman she thinks he is. And she also realizes that maybe he’s lying to her. He is not telling the whole truth. When she sees the guy, the Costa Rican cop, she realizes that Daniel is not telling the truth, but the problem is that she is not telling him the whole truth either. She pretends to be strong, but they realize they are falling in love. And it’s intense, but it’s also dangerous for them — what they want. And they think they need to go their separate ways. 

SF: Why do you think she sells him out? Is her American passport too important?

CD: Yes, she has to get her passport back, that’s for sure. And then she doesn’t have €0.01. So the CIA guy gives her dollars, and she’ll get her passport back. But I also think that when they are arrested at the church, she understands at that moment that he lied to her much more than she thinks. He’s arrested for something that is basically a much bigger political lie. And so, even though the old minister told her, “your friend is dangerous,” she thinks, “yeah, but hey, maybe not.” But now she understands that he is. And she says to herself that she has to save her skin. Even if it’s a betrayal. She saves her skin anyway. He lies. But he also doesn’t lie. He asks her several times, “Are you sure you’re going to come with me? But still, he doesn’t tell her the truth. 

SF: You’ve adapted works by Roland Barthes and Jean-Luc Nancy. And Stars at Noon is an adaptation too. Do you find there’s a big difference between adapting philosophers and novelists?

CD: Oh, Le Beau Soleil Intérieur isn’t Barthes! I had been offered to adapt Fragments d’un Discours d’Amoureux, and I said no. So my co-writer Christine Angot and I wrote our own fragments.

But with L’Intrus… In The Intruder, Nancy writes about his own cardiac experience, whereas in L’Intrus I made up a story with my co-writer around that. It’s not a real adaptation. Jean-Luc Nancy always told me, “You didn’t adapt it, you adopted it.” I think Stars at Noon I really tried to adapt. I kept a lot of Dennis Johnson’s dialogue. 

SF: Is it, in a way,  easier to adapt because it’s in English?

CD: No, I read Denis’s book in French, too. But Denis Johnson’s style, this way of speaking, the dialogue, everything, cannot be translated like that in French. It becomes rather vulgar, whereas there is always a kind of ironic poetry in Denis Johnson’s words in English. I wanted to be faithful to Denis, actually, not to the English. 

Stars at Noon (directed by Claire Denis)

Stars at Noon opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Oct. 14.

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