Stars at Noon

Iconic French auteur Claire Denis helms a sultry and enveloping erotic thriller, with Margaret Qualley and Joe Alwyn starring as strangers colliding in Nicaragua.
Sarah Ward
Published on November 17, 2022


Sweat, skin, sex, schisms, secrets and survival: a great film by French auteur Claire Denis typically has them all. Stars at Noon is one of them, even if her adaptation of the 1986 novel of nearly the same name — her picture drops the 'the', as a certain social network did — doesn't quite soar to the same astonishing heights as High Life, her last English-language release. Evocative, enveloping, atmospheric, dripping with unease: they're also traits that the two flicks share, like much of the Beau Travail, 35 Shots of Rum and White Material filmmaker's work. Here, all the sultriness and stress swells around two gleamingly attractive strangers, Trish (Margaret Qualley, Maid) and Daniel (Joe Alwyn, Conversations with Friends), who meet in a Central American hotel bar, slip between the sheets and find themselves tangled up in plenty beyond lips and limbs.

Shining at each other when so much else obscures their glow, Stars at Noon's central duo are jumbled up in enough individually anyway. For the first half hour-ish, the erotic thriller slinks along with Trish's routine, which sees perspiration plastered across her face from the Nicaraguan heat, the lack of air-conditioning in her motel and the struggle to enjoy a cold drink. The rum she's often swilling, recalling that aforementioned Denis-directed feature's moniker, hardly helps. Neither does the transactional use of her body with a local law enforcement officer (Nick Romano, Shadows) and a government official (Stephan Proaño, Crónica de un amor). Imbibing is clearly a coping and confidence-giving mechanism, while those amorous tumbles afford her protection in a precarious political situation, with her passport confiscated, her actions being scrutinised and funds for a plane ticket home wholly absent.

Trish is a freelance journalist, albeit without much in the way of gigs, as the snarky response she gets from an editor (John C Reilly, Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty) on a video chat shows. Cue trading coitus for cash; when she's first flirting with the white-suited Daniel at Managua's Intercontinental Hotel, however, she's as interested in the free drinks, comfort and cool surroundings as the $50 price she puts on a night together. They click, then go their separate ways in the morning. But after she spies him talking with a Costa-Rican cop (Danny Ramirez, Top Gun: Maverick), she offers words of warning. Daniel says he works in oil, and his situation in the region is as tenuous and thorny as hers — details of which are largely talked around in both cases, in a picture concerned with characters, emotions and sensations over plot mechanics.

In a script penned by Denis with Andrew Litvack (High Life) and Léa Mysius (Farewell to the Night) from Denis Johnson's text — which drew upon his time in Nicaragua and Costa Rica in the early 80s, trying to become an international political reporter — there still remains ample story to go around. Car chases, police threats, assassinations, border runs, collateral damage and CIA offers flesh out the narrative, as does the late arrival of a sharp-talking American (Benny Safdie, Licorice Pizza). Creating a tinderbox environment to ignite around Trish, Daniel, and their dance of lust, loyalty and love is all that politics-fuelled intrigue's main aim, though. Stars at Noon updates the book's time period to now, with masks, vaccinations and testing anchoring it firmly in the COVID-19 age, but there's a timelessness in the way that specifics about controversial articles, election troubles, spying and foreign meddling come second to feelings and flesh. Some things stay the same no matter the period or players, Denis contends, and means it in multiple manners.

Fans of the filmmaker's past work — even just viewers of it — will know that she loves dwelling in this fraught, fragile and fiery space, where things can change in an instant in a personal and existential fashion alike. Denis sees life that way in general; we aren't all writers who've fallen afoul of foreign regimes and are now getting by via sex work, or businessmen patently not doing what we say we are, but being plunged into messes of both our own and others' making is a universal fact of being alive. By focusing on white characters in a location where they instantly stand out, the West Africa-raised Denis also continues the contemplation of colonialism and privilege she's placed on-screen since her 1988 debut Chocolat ("having sex with you is like having sex with a cloud," Trish notes to Daniel here, on account of the Brit's pale complexion). Chaos swelters as thick as the humidity wherever the westerners go, but these outsiders create far more for everyone they meet, especially everyday locals.

Just like in a 90s-era erotic thriller, which this often resembles, the calmest place to be in Stars at Noon is loitering in Trish and Daniel's shared embrace in bed or swirling around an empty dance floor; whichever Denis is focusing on, and cinematographer Eric Gautier (The Truth) as well, the experience is lingering as well as rhythmic and woozy. Sometimes rain clatters down around the film's core duo, sometimes the lighting beaming above couldn't be more seductive — and frequently Tindersticks, who've scored Denis' work for two-plus decades now, add a dazed but urgent mood. The tension, the uncertainty, the desperate solace that having even a tenuous and tricky physical connection with someone else can bring: they all become almost tangible and definitely palpable. Playing their parts with the requisite spark, Qualley and Alwyn melt stickily into each other, and viewers watching take their lead with the movie.

That deeply intimate focus pushes the Cannes Grand Prix-winning Stars at Noon out of Graham Greene-esque, The Quiet American-style territory. Also, with her screaming in the streets as she struts and saunters barefoot in sundresses and singlets, Trish is anything but hushed. In one of the Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and My Salinger Year actor's best performances yet, Qualley exudes tenacity and flightiness — two traits that keep somersaulting the more Trish is with Alwyn's suave and enigmatic Daniel. Cannily, Qualley and Alwyn feel thrust together rather than destined, a truth on-screen and off- (High Life's Robert Pattinson was initially cast, then Black Bird's Taron Egerton). Indeed, there's a volatility to Stars at Noon, and to the romance at its centre, that's equally apt. When you're surveying life's instability — one of its basic and unavoidable truths — getting the film itself in the same kind of lather is no small feat.


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