Stars at Noon Still
Set in Nicaragua where humidity and storm-clouds linger over its leads, Claire Denis’ new film Stars at Noon tries to be a sultry romantic thriller; but rather than a languorous unfolding of mysteries, we have a film which seems indecisive, without direction, and a looseness that often feels laborious.
The film is based on Denis Johnson’s 1986 novel, and Denis has updated its 80s setting for the present day (COVID playing a part in the film’s political backdrop). Trish (Margaret Qualley) tries to prove herself a journalist in Managua, though her journalistic abilities are questioned by the audience and her ex-boss, a cameo by John C Reilly (Reilly is a supremely talented actor and comedian, but his style of comedy feels a little misplaced within the tone of the film and its surrounding cast). While in Managua, Trish meets the aloof Daniel (played by Joe Alwyn) who, despite his early claims to work in energy, seems to have the CIA on his tail. In a manner that’s almost Hitchcockian in sentiment, their political and personal affairs commingle as they try to escape the heat that’s closing in.
As much as Qualley tries to bring a free-spirited quirkiness to Trish, her eccentric independence often feels forced, a performance that borders on pulp (which is fine if the film’s sensibility can support it). Benny Safdie appears as an undercover cop and his Safdie charm is well cast as the duplicitous investigator, whose seemingly good intentions will later tear Trish and Daniel apart. Safdie’s appearance is a saving grace; his presence lends some unity to the drama, and his scenes are the few which feel multilayered. I’d like to give Alwyn the benefit of the doubt, that his cardboard-British persona is a daring acting decision, like some nod to Clive Owen; but the sincerity of Trish and Daniel’s romance makes us think otherwise, and thus his British aloofness falls flat, sucking the energy out of the movie.
The film is designed efficiently, in synch with the material but by no means elevating it.
While Stars at Noon was not the film we anticipated from Claire Denis, there’s potential lurking in this humid thriller, though its half-formed characters and congested pace prevent the film from taking off.