CANNES, France — Just days removed from finishing her latest film and hours after arriving in Cannes, Claire Denis sat down in a poolside hotel restaurant and warmly pronounced herself “a mess.”
Denis’ latest, the Denis Johnson adaptation “Stars at Noon,” has been percolating in her for more than a decade. She was compelled to make it after the author’s death in 2017. But there have been hurdles along the way.
The pandemic, for one. (Masks appear in the film.) Robert Pattison, star of Denis’ 2019 sci-fi film “High Life,” had to drop out over scheduling conflicts. After another actor departed at the last minute, Denis cast co-star Joe Alwyn from Panama by Zoom days before shooting began. A week before Cannes, a problem with the film’s mix meant having to frantically redo it before the film’s premiere Wednesday.
But Denis, the 76-year-old French filmmaking legend of “Beau Travail,” “White Material” and “35 Shots of Rum,” felt strongly about making “Stars at Noon.” It stars Margaret Qualley as a motel-dwelling American journalist named Trish in a present-day Nicaragua overrun by rebels and oilmen. (The book takes place in the ’80s). When Trish propositions a British businessman (Alwyn) at a hotel bar, she finds both trouble and love.
The film drew a mixed reception from critics at Cannes, but it’s a characteristically Denis film, languid and seductive, enlivened by a freewheeling, charismatic performance by Qualley. Denis, who grew up in colonial West Africa and briefly considered resetting “Stars at Noon” there, crafts a politically-tinged thriller and an oblique love story about the perilous, transactional nature of intimacy.
“I think for Denis, love is the main problem of his life,” Denis says, sipping an espresso. “Much more than money.”
Asked if it’s the same for her, Denis smiles.
“Obviously, yeah. It’s probably not a good choice,” Denis replies. “If you’re made for falling in love, what else can you do?”
AP: This is your first time in Cannes’ competition lineup since your feature film debut “Chocolat” in 1988, which seems unbelievable. How do you feel about it?
DENIS: It’s not a problem for me. I was not aware it was so important. To be in competition, it’s not fun. I’m happy to have been more to the side. Sometimes I read things like, “She’s a renegade.” I’m not a renegade. I’m a normal person. The selection people probably don’t like my films and it’s their right. It’s such a difficult thing to be able to do a film. Some people like it or not. That’s the story of cinema, no? I’m a strange figure for people from a distance, probably.
AP: Do you think there’s a false perception of you?
DENIS: I try to be honest with my work, of course. I never try to do an arty movie. I always try to do my best with my feelings. Like this film, it’s so moving to do a film. The best for me is to be in the mood for love, with the actors, with scriptwriting.
AP: How did you get to know Denis Johnson?
DENIS: I heard about Denis Johnson sort of late. I read “Jesus’ Son.” After a while I found “Stars at Noon.” It was as if I understood everything completely. So I wrote to Denis Johnson, I met with him. I was so terribly sad when he died. I said, “Man, I have to try.” I had been a little bit afraid. Then he died and I thought: I have to do it. At least try.
AP: Why did you respond to the book so much?
DENIS: These two characters are absolutely not made to meet. They should not, and yet they do. Little by little they fall in love but each with a different aim. He’s lying to her. She’s not lying to him but he doesn’t know how much she’s been through. She cheats on him in a way I understand, in a way I could do. I thought: This is like a tragedy in the modern world, not in Greece. Their destinies are so imposed. I thought Denis was maybe both characters. He was her when he was trying to be a journalist, and he was maybe a little bit of the Englishman with his secret.
AP: Did you always want to set it in present day?
DENIS: Yeah, when I was in Nicaragua and I saw what was happening, the way it is today. To pretend this is 1984 with American tanks, I thought was too late. It would have been too sad to make a film outside Nicaragua, because no insurance wanted us to shoot in Nicaragua, speaking about a glorious revolution. I thought it was unfair to the Sandinistas.
AP: I imagine you’re also not especially interested in a lot of set dressing and would rather focus on working closely with the actors.
DENIS: Yeah. Reading the novel, the two characters’ relationship is much more important than the revolution. The revolution is like background noise.
AP: Qualley is a revelation in the film. How did you come to see her in the role?
DENIS: I was in Cannes watching (Quentin) Tarantino’s movie (“One Upon a Time in Hollywood”). I already had the project. I came out of the Palais and I thought: It’s her, only her. She waited for almost three years because the pandemic came and Robert was supposed to be in it but he was Batman and did “Tenet.” She believed in the project and trusted me. I never thought I would be disappointed by her. She’s so luminous. She’s not interested in being a beautiful young woman only. She has a spirit, a flame.