The latest film by French director Claire Denis doesn’t describe a dystopia to come, but one which has already settled in to stay

In a bleak authoritarian society, a man and a woman resist the regime by loving each other despite the dictates of despair and of the police. Finally, though, they are forced to betray each other, signaling the total victory of their oppressors, and the ultimate futility of connection and the human spirit.

As most readers probably recognize, that’s the plot of George Orwell’s 1984. It’s also a fitting description of Stars at Noon (2022), the latest film by French director Claire Denis.

The main difference between the two is that Stars at Noon feels much more bleakly relevant—not only because it’s set in the present, but also because it’s presented as a low-key love story, rather than as an ominous and totalizing future. The film is as small as life. It doesn’t describe a dystopia to come, but one which has already settled in to stay, like the way tropical humidity thickens the air around us. As such, it underlines some of the ways in which speculative fiction, as a central narrative means of grappling with totalitarianism, has failed us.

Stars at Noon is set in Nicaragua. It’s based on Denis Johnson’s 1986 novel of the same name, and it’s fairly faithful, though the action has been transplanted to contemporary times. References to the Contras and the Cold War have been replaced with COVID masks and discussions of the upcoming Nicaraguan elections, which may or may not ever happen.

Trish (Margaret Qualley) is an American journalist who comes to Nicaragua to pursue stories about disappeared people and political violence. The pay for such features is virtually nonexistent—one editor (John C. Reilly, in a wonderful cameo) tells her that he only wants stories about luxury vacation destinations. Trish’s reporting irritates the government, and soon she has no money. Trapped, she turns to sex work, sleeping with a number of minor officials for income, to keep herself from being arrested.

On the lookout for new clients, she meets Daniel (Joe Alwyn). He’s a British oil consultant who seems to have enough money to get her out of her predicament. It turns out that he’s in even more trouble than she is, though, and soon they’re desperately hiding from cops and soldiers, trying to figure out how to cross the Costa Rican border.

The film has mostly been discussed as a love story, rather than a portrait of life under totalitarianism. That’s understandable. Margaret Qualley’s Trish sidles into love with a cynical vulnerability that’s as desperate as it is irresistible. “I’m not here for the dollars; I’m here for the air conditioning,” she quips as she dresses in Daniel’s hotel room. Her features, animated with everything but vulnerability, make it clear that she is, in fact, in the hotel room for something else altogether.

Daniel—at first so in control in his white suit—is also in the process of watching his life crumble. When he wakes up without Trish, he almost panics—in part because he needs her help, in part because he needs her in other ways.

The noose tightening around the pair adds to their desperation—and to their romance. But the threat is a lot less dramatic than in the repressive speculative societies of 1984 or The Handmaid’s Tale; state surveillance is far from total, and easily evaded by scooting drunkenly through a mercado.

“The main difference between the two is that Stars at Noon feels much more bleakly relevant—not only because it’s set in the present, but also because it’s presented as a low-key love story, rather than as an ominous and totalizing future.”

Trish’s freedom is constricted in numerous ways—even using a phone is a struggle—but that’s mostly because she’s poor. She says she came to Nicaragua because she “wanted to know the exact dimensions of Hell.” Those dimensions are mostly determined by the width of a pocketbook, not by the size of the visage of Big Brother.

Or so it seems at first. But then, a guy who is maybe a Costa Rican policeman (Danny Ramirez) and a guy who is maybe from the CIA (Benny Safdie) start appearing in whatever remote motel or village Trish and Daniel flee to. Locals who offer them minor aid suffer horrific consequences. Other allies start to abandon them.

What exactly has Daniel done to put himself in the crosshairs of the authorities? It’s never precisely clear, even in the novel, and the movie cuts back on the detail even further. A couple of offhand comments suggest that, on principle, he has done something nebulously altruistic for the wrong country—and that is viewed as unforgivable.

Trish’s role is similarly opaque. The CIA wants her to sign something that will incriminate Daniel, but we don’t have much idea of what that is—nor is it clear what sort of testimony she could possibly offer, since she knows little more than we do. Betrayal is an option, in part because the meaning of the betrayal—and its mechanisms—are largely hidden, not just from us, but also from the betrayer herself.

Orwell, Atwood, and other world-building science-fiction tend to be eager to tell you what’s going on; why build a whole-world mechanism if you aren’t going to point out how cleverly the gears mesh? As a result, we tend to see dystopias as distant and clear. They aren’t us, yet—and when they come for us, we’ll see them.

In Stars at Noon, in contrast, nothing is clear—and the worst has already arrived. Even the safety of geographical distance is shown to be a farce. Trish is in Nicaragua, it’s true, but the forces marshaled against her, for obscure reasons, originate ultimately in the US.

In the last view we have of Daniel and Trish, he is indifferent, while Qualley’s mobile face is heartrendingly hopeless. They live under a regime that makes love and morality impossible; trying to help or care about others is relentlessly punished by the faceless, semi-competent, but nonetheless relentless dead weight of authority. Callousness and despair are the only options in their very familiar world of predatory capitalism, imperialism, nationalism, exploitation, pervasive misogyny, fear, and heavily policed borders.

Orwell warned of a world in which totalitarianism crushes romance. Stars at Noon suggests we need fewer warnings right now since we’ve already arrived at a dystopia in which no good deed, and no love, goes unpunished.