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Director Claire Denis poses with the Grand Prize Palme d'Or Award for the movie Stars at Noon during the winner photocall during the 75th annual Cannes film festival at Palais des Festivals in Cannes, France on May 28.Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

For more than three decades, French filmmaker Claire Denis has been one of the most acclaimed directors in the international arthouse scene.

Born in Paris but raised predominantly in West Africa, Denis has created a body of work that spans continents and genres. Her most acclaimed film is 1999′s Beau Travail, a loose adaptation of Billy Budd set in Djibouti. For North American audiences, however, Denis is likely most well known for her first English-language film, the acclaimed 2018 sci-fi drama High Life, starring Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche. The language choice, recognizable talent and distribution deal with hip indie distributor A24 made High Life more accessible than most of her previous films – but don’t confuse this for her going mainstream.

Denis is a filmmaker known for imagery, texture and mood. She is far more concerned with characters than with expository plot details. This makes her latest feature, the Nicaraguan-set political thriller Stars at Noon, at first appear to be an unconventional choice for Denis.

Adapted from Denis Johnson’s novel about an American journalist and a mysterious English businessman both trapped in the capital city of Managua during the Nicaraguan revolution, Stars at Noon teases a certain amount of complex political intrigue. But, as Denis explains in an interview, the story “is not about Nicaragua, it’s about the meeting of these two characters.”

The film doesn’t entirely eschew the social and political aspects of Johnson’s novel, but it does update them. The year 1984 is swapped for a contemporary setting complete with COVID-19, and the revolution is less specific but still present enough that it is clear Nicaragua is on the CIA’s radar. However, the focus of the film’s narrative is indeed on the two individuals.

Margaret Qualley portrays Trish, an American who fancies herself a muckraker, but who we discover has made more of a career with freelance travelogue-style puff pieces. With the Nicaraguan dollar having tanked and with little U.S. currency to her name, Trish gets by however she can, trading her company for cash with soldiers and businessmen staying at Managua’s Intercontinental hotel.

It’s there she meets Daniel (Joe Alwyn), an English representative of an oil company interested in setting up shop in Nicaragua. It is made clearer in the novel how Daniel came to find himself in hot water with various countries’ governments, but the gist is that he has shared company information that he shouldn’t have.

Daniel’s role was originally planned to be Denis’s second collaboration with Pattinson, but he had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts. Although not her first choice, Denis makes it clear that Alwyn stepped up and impressed her. As she puts it, “Joe is probably the closest person to how Denis described the Englishman. He’s mysterious. I think Joe is fantastic.”

The most eye-catching star of the film, however, is Qualley. Her performance in particular was singled out when the film premiered at Cannes earlier this year, but the film was met with an unexpectedly mixed reception. Despite being a co-winner of the Grand Prix award, it drew a surprising amount of critical ire.

Even when Denis has pushed the envelope in the past, she’s fared well critically, if not commercially. This time, however, some critics dubbed the film her weakest, citing issues with the film’s pacing and dialogue. Others were more generous, but the criticism still came as a surprise considering Denis’s track record. Even looking at very recent history, earlier this year she released the much more critically well-received French-language love triangle drama, Both Sides of the Blade. Although the more polarizing Stars at Noon was slammed as a misfire by some, everyone seemed to agree that whatever faults the film had, Qualley’s performance as Trish was not one of them.

Trish is capricious and unpredictable. She skips through the streets and hisses at her companion. She has the wildness of someone trapped with no way out, who has embraced that nothing she does matters, while also possessing a sly awareness that keeps her with one eye on the door at all times. It’s no easy feat for a performer to capture these contradictions in a character, but Denis never doubted that Qualley was right for the job.

“I was in Cannes on the jury and I saw the Tarantino movie,” she says referring to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. “And the first scene where she’s hitchhiking in L.A., I thought, ‘Wow this is her! Nobody else!’” recalls Denis.

At that point, the script for Stars at Noon was already written, so she was able to fly to New York and meet with Qualley to discuss the role. Due to the pandemic, though, filming was pushed back. But that’s not the only complication production faced.

When Denis first conceived of adapting the novel, she ventured to its setting and found that Johnson’s description served as her guide.

“I went to visit Nicaragua and then, as in the novel, I went by the road to Costa Rica and I recognized the famous hotel and some places he mentioned.”

However, she was hesitant to film there. She recognized how Managua had “been transformed completely by the revolution” and expressed that the recent history still felt too raw. “I don’t want to make it difficult for the people of Nicaragua.” Filming instead took place in Panama.

Although global issues beyond Denis’s control affected some of her production decisions, this didn’t hurt her desire to focus on Trish and Daniel. While their first encounter is of a transactional nature, Denis draws out a degree of sensuality in their scenes. There is a great deal of tension in the dynamics of their relationship considering each has something to gain from the other. For Trish, Daniel possesses the company credit card that could help her escape the country and for Daniel, the scrappy Trish has the street smarts that will help him elude authorities.

After wrestling with my own interpretation of how genuine their feelings are, I ask Denis about her view of the couple’s mutual dependence.

“It’s convenient for her to meet with him, and maybe for him,” she says. “But slowly they realize how attracted they are to each other. I think they try not to abandon themselves to each other and yet that’s what they want.”

At times lifting dialogue directly from the novel it’s based on, Stars at Noon is still unmistakably a Denis film. It is her signature emphasis on sultry imagery and a sense of mood that linger most after the credits roll. Concluding our interview, I ask if she finds it challenging to adapt work that isn’t her own, or if she prefers the source material to serve as her foundation. As Denis has never been a filmmaker to shy away from ambiguity, her answer doesn’t surprise.

“I have no idea. It’s only when I feel it’s right,” she says. “I have no idea what I prefer. What I prefer is to feel I’m sure that’s what I want to do.”

Stars at Noon opens in select Canadian theatres Oct. 14, the same day that it will be available on-demand (including Apple TV, Google Play and the Cineplex Store)