Let the record show that French auteur Claire Denis is decidedly incapable of making a bad movie. As such, Stars at Noon—Denis’ second offering this year following Both Sides of the Blade—features many of the very best aspects of the director’s filmography. Sumptuous cinematography, magnificent tropical vistas and a beautifully moody original song from Denis’ long-time collaborators Tindersticks collide, offering an aesthetically rich tableau of political strife and interpersonal drama in Nicaragua. However, Stars at Noon is also devoid of other notable Denis staples: Kinetic sex scenes that exude a natural chemistry, incisive insights on the lasting legacy of colonialism in formerly occupied territories and actors working at the height of their abilities. The final product is visually and sonically luscious, but narratively and thematically lackluster—a frustrated misstep from a veteran artist that still deserves praise in the right places.
In present-day Nicaragua, young American Trish (Margaret Qualley) navigates a country in tumult: Costa Rican cops maintain a vigilant presence; president/pseudo-dictator Daniel Ortega still reigns after 15 years in command; COVID remains a constant source of anxiety. On top of the political situation, Trish’s own personal safety is precarious. Despite her status as an American “journalist” (though her actual ties to the industry are never revealed), Trish’s passport has been confiscated, barring her from returning to the U.S. Staying at a no-frills motel run by a local woman who’s sympathetic to her situation, Trish’s main hustle becomes visiting the luxury hotel, where foreigners stay relatively out-of-reach from the country’s unsavory political climate, and picking up powerful men willing to exchange a handful of American dollars for sex.
This is precisely how she meets Daniel (Joe Alwyn), a Brit who’s seemingly in town on business. In a last-ditch effort to leave Nicaragua, Trish quickly enmeshes herself in Daniel’s daily life while he stays at the high-end hotel. It’s not long before she realizes that he might be embroiled in an even more dangerous predicament than she is. Nonetheless, they become fiercely bonded—by circumstance, by flesh, by ignorance—and embark on a road trip to the Costa Rican border, engaging in plenty of passionate coitus along the way.
Adapted from the 1986 novel The Stars at Noon by American writer Denis Johnson, the script—co-written by the director, Léa Mysius and Andrew Litvack—updates its source material to perplexing effect. Johnson’s novel is rooted in the Nicaraguan Revolution of 1984, and his central Anglo characters are nameless. Denis originally invited Johnson to co-write the script with her; he declined, instead offering his blessing for her to adapt his novel for the screen. Denis should be particularly adept at helming such a story—ostensibly combining the neo-colonial urgency of White Material with the romantic desperation of Friday Night—yet these inclinations don’t quite mesh here.
The movie’s present-day approach is politically muddled, offering little cognizance of the current state of affairs in Central America. Interestingly, the tense border dispute and economic disparity between the comparatively affluent Costa Rica and the politically unstable Nicaragua loosely reflect the relationship between Mexico and the U.S., particularly as it pertains to the over-policing of the border, racist scapegoating and rampant deportations (in this case, of the Nicaraguan laborers seeking better pay in Costa Rica). Though Denis certainly doesn’t offer a history lesson in films like Chocolat or White Material, these projects directly relate to the lasting impact of French colonization in Africa, even mining from the director’s own experiences, prejudices and anti-racist resolutions to reflect the need for French acknowledgement of the perpetuation of these colonial atrocities.
There’s a sliver of this context with the inclusion of Benny Safdie as an unnervingly nice CIA agent (“We’re Americans,” he tells Trish. “We’re friends.”), yet his somewhat ancillary inclusion is mostly just a nod to the U.S.’s hand in destabilizing Nicaragua (Reagan dispatched the CIA to aid the right-wing Contras against Sandinista influence in the Nicaraguan government). This nauseating recent history prompts several questions: As an American journalist in Nicaragua, what story is Trish looking to break? Is she the best one to write it? What outlet is supporting her? The ambiguity of these answers could, at the very least, be more compelling.
Luckily, Qualley and Safdie’s performances as arrogant Americans in a country their employers (the media, the U.S. government) have disrupted are the best in the film. Trish’s nasal, heavily-accented Spanish is spoken with assertive confidence despite its grammatical and phonetic flaws; Safdie’s obtuse comments about the “rudeness” of certain Nicaraguan practices drip with polite bigotry. They are never portrayed as deft travelers or masters of language, blundering through their interactions with locals to an almost comical degree.
Alwyn’s performance is commendable—particularly when he leans into portraying a disheveled English prick—but he can’t quite keep up with Qualley, and their chemistry is practically non-existent, even with DP Éric Gautier masterfully shooting their sex scenes. The absence of Robert Pattinson, who had to leave the project due to Batman scheduling problems, sticks in the humid air.
Most frustratingly, the sex scenes between Qualley and Alwyn fail to sell their evolving dynamic. Daniel seamlessly transitions from being Trish’s client to co-dependent lover, yet it’s unclear how or why she makes that emotional transition. Trish is already desperate for help when the film begins, so why do her tireless pursuits—of money, of her passport, of a way back to America—stall with her newfound adoration of Daniel? Honestly, there’s a far more palpable spark between Qualley and Safdie’s characters—the slimy, surface-level seduction between two Americans—who end up servicing each other through shadily bureaucratic means.
Despite these shortcomings, Stars at Noon still contains brilliant kernels that flicker with hopefulness for the director’s future work. It is now the second Denis film to radically portray our current COVID reality, incorporating masks and vaccination mandates to an end that is both thrilling and banal in its relevance. The film also exemplifies the filmmaker’s enduring eye for muses, with Qualley’s sensual and intensely emotional performance perfectly playing into Denis’s sensibilities. Vitally, it also offers one of the best Tindersticks songs for a Denis film since Trouble Every Day, which accompanies a distinctly memorable scene in the film. Unsurprisingly, it’s a stunning dance sequence, something Denis is particularly adept at capturing. Her work is much more powerful, though, when she refuses to dance around the thornier neo-colonial conundrums her white, privileged characters encounter while traveling abroad.
Director: Claire Denis
Writer: Claire Denis, Léa Mysius, Andrew Litvack
Stars: Margaret Qualley, Joe Alwyn, Benny Safdie, Danny Ramirez, John C. Reilly
Release Date: October 14, 2022
Natalia Keogan is Filmmaker Magazine’s web editor, and regularly contributes freelance film reviews here at Paste. Her writing has also appeared in Blood Knife Magazine, SlashFilm and Daily Grindhouse, among others. She lives in Queens with her large orange cat. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan