“Flat performance from the male lead and a futile narrative”
Sex and desire, obsession and belonging, violence and suspense, the human body and soul— French director Claire Denis is known for having tackled all these themes throughout her decade-spanning career. In her most recent release, Stars at Noon, Denis takes another swing at her trademarks but happens to miss the mark completely. The film follows spiralling young journalist Trish played by Margaret Qualley; left cashless and stranded in the country of Nicaragua after trying to report on the local kidnappings and hangings and in turn gets her passport revoked. On a journey of hustling her way out of the country, she hangs around a fancy hotel bar and strikes up a conversation with an Englishman (Joe Alwyn). He says he works for an oil conglomerate and is here on business, but what Trish sees is someone who can help her escape, or at least fund it. Based on a 1986 novel of the same name, Denis makes the faulty decision to base her film in the present day with the pointless incorporation of the Coronavirus, rather than the Nicaraguan Revolution that the book is set in. That was only the first of many missteps the film had to offer.
The beating heart of the film is meant to be the lust and immeasurable sexual tension between the two leads Qualley and Alwyn. The audience is supposed to believe that their connection, first formed by Alwyn’s character paying fifty bucks to have sex with Trish, is strong enough to risk each other’s lives for. Qualley delivers a fiery and raw performance, but unfortunately has nothing to bounce her skills off of. Alwyn’s character Daniel was first supposed to be played by Robert Pattinson, which possibly could have saved the film (keyword there is possibly). When Pattinson dropped out, Taron Egerton was set to replace him but that ultimately fell through and thus Alwyn was cast— and he very much gives the performance of somebody who was the third choice. The film relies on the chemistry between Trish and Daniel to be palpable but instead it is nonexistent, which makes it even harder to watch the devoid sex scenes that were spread out through the runtime in place of any real plot development. Time that could have been spent on building the bigger picture of the political landscape in Nicaragua and what Daniel’s motives really are, instead is given to yet another scene of the two lovers lazing in a sweaty motel room.
The flat performance from the male lead and its futile narrative does not, however, write the movie off completely. Denis has a knack for hypnotic audiovisual impact and no one captures the human body quite like her, and this film confirms that. The music by her frequent collaborators Tindersticks was a high point, specifically in a scene that features their titular song ‘Stars at Noon’ in which the leads embrace on an empty dance floor, flooded by purplish hues. A brief cameo by John C. Reilly brings verve and comedic relief to an otherwise dreary time, even if we only see him over Zoom. The last third of the film brings another cameo that added some much needed gusto, Benny Safdie as a CIA operative poorly masquerading as a consultant. His charismatic and witty energy actually prove to work quite well opposite Margaret Qualley, if only we got to see them share the screen more before the film ends. It is disappointing to have someone as regarded as Claire Denis fall short on such an anticipated release, but she is also the kind of filmmaker guaranteed to make up for it by her next project— not everything can be Beau Travail!
Dir: Claire Denis
Prod: Olivier Delbosc
Cast: Margaret Qualley, Joe Alwyn, Benny Safdie
Release Date: October 14 2022
Available On: Hulu on October 28 2022
Trailer: Stars at Noon | Official Trailer HD | A24