A24 seems to be embarrassed by Stars at Noon The movie won the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, but barely spent a week in theaters before hitting Hulu. I could not wait to see it. Claire Denis is one of my favorite contemporary directors, adapting a novel by the late Denis Johnson, a writer I love. The plot takes place in Nicaragua, my country. It feels like they made a movie for me.
Stars at Noon sticks very close to the plot of the novella published in 1986: a nameless, alcoholic American journalist trapped in revolutionary Nicaragua resorts to prostitution to survive. She gets involved with a shady British businessman who may be a spy. They fall in love and run for the southern border, with sinister fellows snipping at their heels. Johnson based the book on his experiences in the early 80s when he was trying to make it as a foreign correspondent.
I gravitated to his work via Jesus’ Son (Alison McLean, 1999), a film adaptation of his eponymous short story collection. Scanning through his bibliography, I was surprised to discover The Stars at Noon took place at home. American artists and intellectuals made pilgrimages to see the Sandinista revolution in the early 80. Some of them fell in love with the carefully curated experience designed by apparatchiks to foster goodwill in the US. I dreaded the idea of Johnson drinking the Kool-Aid.
I finally capitulated and read the novel when I got word of the movie. It was a relief to discover that Johnson did not buy the propaganda. His prose captured the corruption reverberating below the surface, which in time, curdled the revolution into another dictatorship. A new wave of dread it me: shooting in Nicaragua would turn the production into a PR coup for the regime. Daniel Ortega returned to power in 2008 and promptly turned himself into a dictator.
Denis visited Nicaragua with co-screenwriter Léa Mysius. They wanted to scout locations and get a feel of the place before writing. She secured permission to shoot in the country, but decided to move the production to Panama. “We realized that the president was slowly deviating from the true trajectory of the revolution, and he wanted to be re-elected against the will of the people there…we realized we had to change,” said Denis at Cannes. This is a very diplomatic understatement. She must have visited sometime in 2019. By then, the country lived in a de facto state of siege. Since April, 2018, International Human Rights organizations have accounted for over 320 persons assassinated by state-sponsored repression. More than 100 thousand had fled into exile.
The expense of recreating 80s Managua in Panama led Denis to transfer the action to the present. Covid runs rampant, and everyone wears masks. The first image will give any Nicaraguans a shock of recognition: our protagonists find a couple of vandalized Trees of Life. The massive structures are a bizarre combination of iron sculptures and lampposts, the whimsical invention of Rosario Murillo, the First Lady and Vice President of Nicaragua. Murillo ordered planting them everywhere in the city, disregarding safety concerns and urban planning considerations. In 2018, to tumble them down became a powerful gesture of rebellion.
Naming the characters is a departure. Embodied by flesh and bone actors, it is virtually impossible to present them as the abstractions Johnson created. The movie is very preoccupied with the connection they establish through sex. At the bar of the Intercontinental Hotel, Trish (Margaret Quarry) picks up Daniel (Joe Alwyn, in a role inherited from Robert Pattinson and Taron Egerton). Trish looks for a 50 dollar trick, a meal, and an air-conditioned room, but she gets much more. They fall in love. The love making scenes are sensual without being exploitative. They are a tender refutation to the puritanical calls on social media for less sex in film.
Nicaraguans will find elements from both revolutionary phases. From the 80s, you get food shortages and hurdles to change currency. One of the biggest problems Trish faces is converting córdobas into dollars. If you go to Managua today, you will find every merchant willing to relieve you of your Benjamins. Heavily armed soldiers and Policemen patrol the streets. It is par for the course with the strategy of intimidation the regime has had in place since 2018. Less common is the apparition of fliers and signs against the dictatorship, which in the movie are abundant. People are just too scared to manifest dissent openly.
The authorities retain Trish’s passport. The same happens to hundreds of Nicaraguan citizens in one the most common repressive measures enacted nowadays. The goal is to prevent people from leaving the country. There are no reports of foreigners suffering this. Exiled Nicaraguans with invalid documents do not get renewals at the embassies and consulates.
Denis’ films have never been movies that Ministries of Tourism celebrate. She eschews postcard-ready views, and focuses on closely watched, urban spaces. This way, and judicious s is how she pulls off the Managua-by-way-of-Panama gambit. The motel Trish calls home would not be out of place at the old center of Managua, decimated by an earthquake in 1972 and never fully rebuilt. One thing missing is the modernist pyramid of the Hotel Intercontinental, the hub of foreign correspondents in the 80's. The impersonal, generic interior of the Panama-bound stand-in is enough, though, to suggest the transitory estate of the characters.
This sense of timelessness, past and present in an insane amalgam, reminds me of the combination of Nazi-occupied France and modernity in Transit (Christian Petzold, 2019). Nicaraguans will wince listening to some actors speaking with decidedly Panamanian accents. It is even more jarring considering the beautiful work that Margaret Qualley does, speaking like a gringa who learned Spanish in Nicaragua. She uses our form of the second person singular with abandon - ¡Vos sos fiera! - and conjugates it accordingly.
Her zealousness in dispensing profanities is heartwarming. Check out how she relishes calling her military minder Veraguas (Nick Romano), Sub Teniente Verga. Verga is a maritime term repurposed to name the penis. It can be an insult - ¡Sos la verga! (you are useless) - or a compliment - ¡Sos de a verga! (you are great). The Meaning changes according to intent, context, and intonation. She deploys it to recuperate a little bit of power. It also makes clear the actress did her homework. Take it from a Nicaraguan: this is Oscar-caliber acting. I am not even mentioning the interplay of harshness and tenderness she infuses in Trish. She is a stranger in a strange land, navigating a volatile environment, suffering from alcoholism, and lowering her defenses as she falls surprisingly in love. It is the role of a lifetime, and Qualley plays it like a champ.
But Stars at Noon egregiously drops the cultural ball in a way that no Nicaraguan worth his salt can forgive. At a southern border town, Trish meets a shady contractor played by Benny Safdie. He enjoys a local meal, which she identifies as Gallo Pinto: "rice, beans, and eggs.” Trish, honey, the eggs happen to be on the same plate. We could let that fly, but the worst offense comes next: “First Gallo Pinto I’ve seen. We must be close to Costa Rica”. The implication that Gallo Pinto is Costa Rican will send the blood pressure of any Nicaraguan skyrocketing.
Actually, mixed rice and beans are ubiquitous in Central America and the Caribbean, with subtle differences from one country to another. In Cuba, they call it Moros y Cristianos, or Congrí, and season it with garlic and cumin. Costa Ricans put Lizano sauce in theirs, but Nicaraguans do not. For the wealthy or the poor, this is a true staple, served in any meal, everywhere in the country. We have to take her confusion as proof of her foreignness.
Denis is not interested in commenting on the Nicaraguan quagmire. Our drama serves as the backdrop for the main event. The setting is a catalyst, a source of danger that pushes unlikely lovers together. She is cautious not to make grand statements about the situation, whether in her movie or the media. I interpret this as a show of respect. Still, part of me wishes for a more expressive show of solidarity. In December, 2021, while shooting in Panama, Denis participated in a panel at the International Film Festival. She said, “I wanted to shoot in Nicaragua but when President Daniel Ortega came back to power, I knew I could not. It would have been immoral.”
I guess that will have to do. Filmmakers are like foreign journalists, diplomats, tourists, and business people. They are just passing through. Our troubles are not theirs to solve.
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