Stars at Noon Review: Claire Denis’ sweaty romantic thriller shines

CANNES: Joe Alwyn and Margaret Qualley strip off and walk to the Nicaraguan border in breakout rare Denis film.

Claire Denis may have fallen in love with Margaret Qualley for her playful and carefree performance as one of the Manson girls in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but I can’t help but suspect, albeit subconsciously, that there is another could be reason why she decided to cast the young actress in the lead role of Stars at Noon.

Like so many of Denis’ films (“Beau Travail,” “Trouble Every Day”), this sweaty love thriller about two white foreigners who fall in love (or at least fuck a lot) against a backdrop of political tensions in Central America is cryptic and carnal Find a way out of purgatory. And like so many of Denis’s films, the scorching Stars at Noon is edited with such jagged atemporality that it often seems set in an in-between space where the past never happened and the future may never come.

In this case, that dislocated feeling stems from the decision to update Denis Johnson’s 1986 novel of the same name from the Nicaraguan revolution to today; from the beginning of Daniel Ortega’s first term to the culmination of his fourth; from cons to COVID. Nothing changes and nothing stays the same. More amorous than High Life, more ambitious than Friday Night, and arguably more accessible to mainstream American audiences than anything she’s ever done (if only), Stars at Noon follows Denis’ spin-on And groundhog day” has now become very similar to reality. And there’s Qualley, floating helplessly in the flowing Andie MacDowell hair she inherited from her mother, desperate for someone to help her watch the sun rise tomorrow. It’s déjà vu again.

That’s not to say that “Stars at Noon” doesn’t show us anything we haven’t seen before — there’s nothing “same old same old” about Claire Denis riffing on “The Year of Living Dangerously.” Even if politically tinged exotic romance hadn’t been so hard to come by in all the years since, this sordid tale of beautiful people on the brink of self-destruction would still stand out for its dissonant energies, sensual rhythms and prickly encounters that Denis’ search for mutual aid in shape a mercenary world.

Qualley plays Trish, about the last person you’d find stranded in an unpredictable Central American country in the weeks leading up to a high-stakes election. For one, her name is Trish. Second, she combines the restrained ingenuity of a veteran war reporter with the too-drunk spirit of a college girl who got a little carried away on spring break and constantly resists your efforts to archetype her. She’s caustic enough to yell colonialist threats at random strangers when she gets upset (“American tanks are going to come and crush your country!”), but also hides a childish helplessness behind an N95-strong mask of “fuck both sides” cynicism . She smells faintly of privilege, but she’s so unable to pay her own way out of the country that she’s started selling her body to some of the city’s most powerful military leaders. One killer detail in a movie full of it: when we first see Trish’s motel, a guy is stretched out on a couch by the door, holding a cardboard sign that reads “No WiFi.”

Claire Denis never cares much for context, but the implication that Trish was a hard news journalist who has run afoul of the government is just as believable as the other, competing implication that she’s a fed-up travel blogger had to write about howler monkeys at costa rican spa resorts. (Much to the chagrin of an unamused John C. Reilly, who earns the rare “with involvement of” recognition in his cameo as a heartless editor.) Whatever the case, Trish has clearly come to terms with a life of transactional relationships, and the exchange rate for Córdobas in Nicaragua is so bad that she offers—almost begs—a handsome Brit she meets in the Intercontinental bar to have sex with her for $50, a few hours of air conditioning, and a roll of stolen toilet paper. All so that she can tell herself again and again that she will leave this place “tomorrow or the day after”.

According to Trish, oil consultant Daniel is so white that sleeping with him is “cloud-fucked.” Originally written to describe Robert Pattinson, who pulled out of the film due to scheduling issues with The Batman, this line now lands on a bearded and blue-eyed Joe Alwyn whose natural recessiveness suits a role defined by his cool stability . Daniel is married but used to cheating. He’s harmless but lies to Trish about the gun he keeps in the bathroom. He’s fatally good-natured, but tends to express his lust with all the eloquence of a Google-translated Pornhub comment (the words “suck me” have never been uttered with such direct sincerity).

Denis, Andrew Litvack and Léa Mysius’ dialogue is only enhanced by his occasional awkwardness as he immerses Trish and Daniel in the same disordered wetness that inundates the film around them. The frequent sex scenes become a dialogue of their own – the lovers feel each other searching for something they can really trust.

Whatever they discover is expressed in Denis’ typically elliptical approach to intimacy, often implying that touch immortalizes tenderness. A cut – casually jumping from Trish lamenting her period to a shot of Daniel with blood on his fingers and neck – offers a particularly poignant demonstration of Denis’ ability to portray physicality through absence.

Elsewhere, a slow dance set to a swooningly gorgeous new song from Tindersticks frontman Stuart Staples is almost heartbreaking enough to rival the “Nightshift” scene from “35 Shots of Rum” (nothing ever can, or ever will, but Denis is at least her own best imitator). It’s the icing on the cake of a surprisingly warm score that often sounds like it’s waiting for permission to burst into Annie Lennox’s “No More ‘I Love You’s,” while the first half of “Stars at Noon” amidst the apathy enough nervous hope finds the political theater you almost want to believe in, just as Trish and Daniel almost believe in each other.

The second half of the film, in which our couple is forced to run to the border after their affair landed them both in hot water, is lopsided and inflated by CIA gameplay in a way that delights die-hard Denis fans and frustrates everyone who expects a simpler solution to the film’s central romance. Neither camp should have a problem with Benny Safdie dropping by as a mysterious American with good intentions and bad motives. While the fuzzy sense of danger can have an emotionally distancing effect, the uncertainty that lingers behind it helps ground Stars at Noon on the shaky ground the film needs to feel beneath its feet for its characters to question whether they ever will be able to find their balance. “Please keep me,” Trish implores Daniel after they collapse into another sweaty heap that never seems to dry. But in Claire Denis’ films, everyone is living on borrowed time.

Grade: B+

Stars at Noon premiered in competition at the 2022 Canes Film Festival. A24 will release it in the US.

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Lindsay Lowe

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