Claire Denis is a French auteur known for her provocative, insatiable films such as Beau Travail, Trouble Every Day and 35 Shots of Rum. Her English-language debut, the illuminating High Life, starred Robert Pattinson in one of his finest performances. Denis’ films are erotic, melancholic and always mesmerising, which is why it’s deeply disappointing that her latest film, Stars At Noon, barely resembles her best work.
Margaret Qualley plays Trish, an American journalist stranded in Nicaragua during Covid-19 after her passport is confiscated. She resorts to sleeping with government officials in order to get by, but when she meets a dashing Englishman, Daniel (Joe Alwyn), she spies a way of getting back home.
Based on a Denis Johnson novel, Stars At Noon screened in competition at Cannes Film Festival in 2022, and while it lost the Palme d’Or to The Triangle of Sadness, the jury still awarded the film with the runner-up prize of the Grand Prix. There are occasional moments of brilliance in Stars At Noon, but they are outweighed by the less convincing moments.
Stars At Noon isn’t generous with the number of characters it puts on screen, so most of the heavy lifting is left to Alwyn and Qualley. Alwyn, who played another emotionally unavailable cheater in last year’s Conversations With Friends, is woefully, absurdly miscast here. Like most of Denis’ work, Stars At Noon is an erotic drama, and the frequent, graphic sex scenes are shot with the clarity we’ve come to expect from the auteur, but Alwyn lacks the charisma that is so crucial for a romantic lead.
In all fairness, the role was never intended for Alwyn to play. Daniel was supposed to be played by Pattinson, but his relentless schedule and commitments to The Batman made him unavailable. Next up was Taron Egerton, not exactly known for his erotic roles (unless you count a few uncouth lines in the Kingsman films) but Egerton was unavailable too, so Alwyn is what we got.
Qualley fares better than her scene partner. Her choices in any given scene are much more interesting and unexpected. Most importantly, she never asks for our pity for Trish, merely a little sympathy for a woman who is forced to do what she must in order to survive. Characters like Trish are usually presented as idealistic, but this is a woman who is worn and torn by the modern-day realities of Nicaragua.
Even with all of its flaws, and there are many, it’s hard to criticise Denis’ craft. She is still the master of sensuality on screen. The sex scenes aren’t romantic in the traditional sense. They simply offer fleeting moments away from Daniel and Trish’s real-world issues. Danny Ramirez plays a local, shady police officer with whom Daniel meets, and John C. Reilly pops up as Margaret’s editor. Both are far more compelling with their limited screen time than Qualley and Alwyn are together.
Denis has always explored frail, desperate connections between people who are helplessly lost in their lives. She isn’t a stranger to morally murky subjects, and every so often, Stars At Noon will engage in something a little more morally unsavoury. But the finished product pales in comparison to the boldness of Beau Travail or Trouble Every Day.
Qualley and Alwyn have no chemistry together, which is ultimately Stars At Noon’s biggest downfall. Trish and Daniel only exist in this time and place; there is no sense of history or context to either character aside from the few details we get about their lives outside of this very specific moment in time. Stars At Noon is a missed opportunity, a film lacking in conflict and lethargic in nature.
Stars At Noon is available on digital download now.