‘Stars at Noon’ Review: Claire Denis’ Sweaty Romantic Thriller Shines Bright

Cannes: Joe Alwyn and Margaret Qualley get naked and run for the Nicaraguan border in the rare Denis movie with breakout potential.
The Stars at Noon
"The Stars at Noon"

Claire Denis may have fallen in love with Margaret Qualley because of her coltish and carefree performance as one of the Manson girls in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, yet I can’t help but suspect that — if only subconsciously — there may be another 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 romantic thriller about two white foreigners who fall in love (or at least fuck a lot) against the background of Central American political tensions is a cryptic and carnal search for a way out of purgatory. And like so many of Denis’ films, the incandescent “Stars at Noon” is cut with such jagged atemporality that it often seems set in a space between time, 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 now; from the start of Daniel Ortega’s first term in office to the cusp of his fourth; from Contras 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 else she’s ever made (if only just), “Stars at Noon” is the closest that Denis’ spin on “Groundhog Day” has come to resembling the real thing. And there’s Qualley, adrift in the flowing Andie MacDowell hair she inherited from her mother, desperately flailing around for anyone who might be able to help her watch the sun come up tomorrow. It’s déjà vu all over again.

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

Qualley plays Trish, just about the last person you’d expect to find stranded in a volatile Central American country during the weeks leading up to a high-stakes election. For one thing, her name is Trish. For another, she combines the cagey resourcefulness of a veteran war reporter with the too-drunk-to-wear-shoes-on-the-walk-home spirit of a college girl who got a little carried away on spring break, constantly defying your efforts to assign her an archetype. She’s caustic enough to scream colonialist threats at random strangers when she gets upset (“American tanks are going to come and crush your country!”), but also hides a childlike helplessness behind an N95-strength mask of “fuck both sides” cynicism. She faintly smells of privilege, yet she’s so incapable of paying her own way out of the country that she’s begun selling her body to some of the most powerful military leaders in town. One killer detail in a film that’s full of them: The first time we see Trish’s motel, there’s a guy sprawled out on a couch by the door, holding a cardboard sign that says “No WiFi.”

Claire Denis is never much for context, but the implication that Trish was a hard-news journalist who ran afoul of the government is just as believable as the other, rival implication that she’s a travel blogger who got bored of writing about howler monkeys at Costa Rican spa resorts. (Much to the chagrin of an unamused John C. Reilly, who earns a rare “with the participation of” credit in his one-scene cameo as a heartless editor.) Whatever the case, Trish has clearly resigned herself to a life of transactional relationships, and the exchange rate for Nicaraguan Córdobas is so bad that she offers — almost pleads with — a handsome British man she meets at the bar of the Intercontinental to have sex with her for $50 USD, a few hours of A/C, and a roll of stolen toilet paper. Anything so that she can keep telling herself she’ll get out of this place “tomorrow or the day after.”

According to Trish, oil consultant Daniel is so white that sleeping with him is “like being fucked by a cloud.” Originally written to describe Robert Pattinson, who dropped out of the movie due to scheduling issues with “The Batman,” that line now lands on a bearded and blue-eyed Joe Alwyn, whose natural recessiveness suits a role defined by its cool-headed 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-mannered, but prone to expressing his lust with all the eloquence of a Google-translated Pornhub comment (the words “suck me” have never been delivered with such direct sincerity).

Denis, Andrew Litvack, and Léa Mysius’ dialogue is only strengthened by its occasional awkwardness, as it subsumes Trish and Daniel into the same disordered humidity that swamps the film around them. The frequent sex scenes become a dialogue of their own — the lovers feeling each other out in search of something they can actually trust.

Whatever they discover is expressed through Denis’ typically elliptical approach to intimacy, which often implies touch immortalizes tenderness. One cut — which casually jumps from Trish lamenting her period to a shot of Daniel with blood all over his fingers and neck — offers particularly visceral proof of Denis’ ability to depict physicality through absence.

Elsewhere, a slow-dance set to a swooningly gorgeous new song by Tindersticks frontman Stuart Staples is almost heart-stopping enough to compete with the “Nightshift” scene from “35 Shots of Rum” (nothing can or ever will, but Denis is at least her own best imitator). It’s the cherry on top 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,’” as the first half of “Stars at Noon” finds enough flustered hope amid the apathy of political theater that you almost want to believe in it, just as Trish and Daniel almost believe in each other.

The second half of the film, in which our couple is forced to make a run for the border after their affair lands them both in hot water, grows oblique and distended by CIA gamesmanship in a way that will delight hardcore Denis fans and frustrate anyone expecting a more straightforward resolution to the movie’s central romance. Neither camp should have a problem with Benny Safdie dropping in as a mysterious American with good beans and bad motives. If the fuzzy sense of danger can have an emotionally distancing effect, the uncertainty that lingers behind helps fix “Stars at Noon” to the shaky ground the movie needs to feel beneath its feet in order for its characters to question if they’ll ever be able to find their balance. “Please keep me,” Trish pleads with Daniel after they collapse in yet another sweaty heap that never seems to dry. But in the films of Claire Denis, everyone is living on borrowed time.

Grade: B+

“Stars at Noon” premiered in Competition at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. A24 will release it in the United States.

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