Even the best film directors need good actors. Claire Denis has worked with an informal troupe of actors who recur in her films throughout her career, like Gregoire Colin and Alex Descas, and has also had more starry lead actors this century, from Vincent Lindon in Bastards and Isabelle Huppert in White Material to Juliette Binoche in Let the Sunshine In. These are performers who have the mettle and experience to anchor a film, and the acting smarts to work with Denis’s tricksy dialogue and elliptical filmmaking. Margaret Qualley and Joe Alwyn lead The Stars at Noon as two lovers caught up in political intrigue in Nicaragua, and it is unfortunately a glaring flaw here that they are unable to carry the film. Both are miscast, both lack chemistry, and neither of them has a very fun time with the dialogue. It seems from early reactions in Cannes that Joe Alwyn’s reading of the line, “suck me” is destined to become legendary, but I would suggest that Qualley’s take on the line, “I’m fond of eggs” should be the real cult quip here.
Qualley plays Trish Johnson, a young journalist who has become stuck in a politically feverish Nicaragua for one reason or another and finds herself unable to make money to fly back; her passport has also been confiscated. Here, she resorts to sex work to get by, and has become terribly jaded already by the time we meet her. It befalls her one day that she bumps into Daniel (Alwyn), a shady young Englishman on some sort of mission to the country who appears to be an operative of some sort, and who is constantly tailed by secret agents. The pair embark on a heady sexual affair. Trish and Daniel soon run into trouble—well, not quite soon enough, considering the film is 2.5 hours long—and are forced to resort to desperate measures to outrun their pursuers.
The Stars at Noon is two films rolled into one, of which one is particularly unsuccessful and the other not quite as unsuccessful, but still not successful. There is a prominent romance storyline, featuring a fair few sex scenes in sweaty Nicaraguan hotels, and the couple slow-dancing in abandoned cocktail bars; and there is political intrigue, with various mysterious agents cropping up and being vaguely threatening. The latter aspect is not handled well: there is a lack of clarity in Denis’s storytelling, and the film suffers from not having the sort of ambiguous, far-reaching politics of a project such as Bastards, where Denis brilliantly dissected the ills that connect us all.
The Stars at Noon also doesn’t have enough actors in it, enough business and life going on in the background—it was clearly affected by COVID regulations—so it doesn’t have the necessary fever to make us believe in the heated peril of the situation. Instead, Alwyn and Qualley run around completely deserted streets and desperately drink rum in various empty shacks, which rather undermines the feeling that they are living on the brink. On top of this, the flagrant miscasting of Alwyn and Qualley in the lead roles sinks the idea of the film as a political thriller: these characters should be so much more desperate, cynical, hardened, grizzled, embattled, hard-living—in a word, real. Margaret Qualley barely breaks a sweat throughout, looking at all times like a cute student on spring break; Alwyn is a handsome corpse in a jacket.
“Margaret Qualley barely breaks a sweat throughout, looking at all times like a cute student on spring break; Alwyn is a handsome corpse in a jacket.”
The other narrative strand—the passionate affair between the two—is rather let down by the fact that Qualwyn have no chemistry at all, none, not a scrap, not an iota; but if you can overlook that, Denis’s sensual aesthetic is much more in synch with this dimension of the movie, and there is some fun, frank sex stuff in the screenplay. Particularly, an uber-Denis touch comes when we see that the couple have had sex while Trish is on her period, because Daniel’s chest is covered in menstrual blood, which she tenderly sluices off her body: this is good, frank sex, with Denis’s usual eye for color and matter-of-fact handling of taboos. Another scene—the “suck me” one—in which the two lovers are covered with droplets of water, in neon light, lying on hotel bedsheets and drying themselves with heaters, is achingly beautiful. In general, Denis seizes these bodies beautifully together, as in a rapturous scene in a bar, set to a gorgeous Tindersticks song, all pink light and electric blue backdrops: this is so woozy and radiant, giving a fine sense of the passion that should be taking hold of these characters.
Denis’s dialogue, drawn from the Denis Johnson book, and in collaboration with the filmmaker Léa Mysius, feels quite stiff and unnatural at times: there is a prevailing sense that the terse lines and repartee between characters should have a bit of Graham Greene gunpowder to it, but the dialogue here is rather witless. In a confusing early scene, Daniel asks Trish if she’s a prostitute or press, and she answers, “We’re all press,” whereupon he quips back, “Then we’re all for sale.” This isn’t very funny, but it could be tidied up into something passable—and these actors make a meal of it. On another occasion, Daniel observes, “Nothing like running away in an old Toyota.” What? The actor Danny Ramirez, playing a threatening Nicaraguan security agent, has a better time of things, with a beautiful straight-up reading of the line, “I don’t like people like you. I don’t like giving you money,” delivered toward Trish. That kind of flatness serves the film much better than ironic/desperate quipping, as it serves a broadly anti-American politics that could do with fleshing out.
Stars at Noon is decidedly minor Claire Denis—a film that invites unflattering comparisons with White Material and Bastards, and a film where some things have clearly gone wrong, or are perhaps still in need of a polish. (The cut presented in Cannes was rushed into the competition and could plausibly be reworked for its general release.) The question of the lead actors is crucial, because Denis’s world, and her style, are so particular as to be deeply traduced by less than pitch-perfect performers. But not everything is a disaster here: the sheer style of the film especially is so inviting, and drips with all the sensuality that is absent from the central pairing. Stars at Noon, for all its faults, still offers the opportunity to see a master stylist at work.