The often brilliant Claire Denis has historically been undervalued by the Cannes Film Festival, making the Official Competition cut only now for the second time after first appearing with her debut feature, 1988’s chocolate. So it’s sad to report that the French auteur’s rare reappearance in the main selection is with one of her least interesting films, Stars at Noon, an English- and Spanish-language romantic thriller — more in intent than execution. Led by impersuasive performances from chemistry-deficient leads Margaret Qualley and Joe Alwyn, this is a film almost perversely lacking in dramatic texture or momentum.
Considering that it’s set in Nicaragua under an oppressive government, with streets lined by armed military guards and protest signs calling to “Stop the Abuse of Power,” it’s quite an achievement that the film just sits there, inert. That may partly be due to the decision to update Denis Johnson’s 1986 novel from its original setting during the Sandinista rule in 1984. That time shift, in the screenplay by the director, Léa Mysius and Andrew Litvack, consists mainly of adding cellphones, internet and masks to acknowledge the COVID-19 pandemic. Somehow, the stakes just don’t feel real or urgent.
Stars at Noon
The Bottom Line
A major misfire.
Perhaps because the writers haven’t been able to reimagine the story down to its bones, Stars at Noon never feels credibly contemporary, demonstrating more in common with ’80s thrillers about foreign nationals caught up in political intrigue, like Under Fire or The Year of Living Dangerously. That would be a good thing if it packed some heat or tension.
Both those films centered on English-speaking journalists getting into hot water while attempting to report on the turmoil of corrupt regimes. Denis’ protagonist, Trish Johnson (Qualley), has dubious press credentials, but although she’s tried to sell stories on political kidnappings and election interference, her American magazine editor contact (John C. Reilly in a Skype cameo) tells her to stop calling. “You are not a journalist,” he informs her with blunt finality.
While trying to find a way out of the country without airfare, Trish kills time getting wasted on rum and turning tricks, preferably for American dollars. She has curried favor by sleeping with a police sub-lieutenant (Nick Romano), who confiscated her passport and has now revoked her press card; and by cozying up to the Vice-Minister for Tourism (Stephan Proaño), whose willingness to help has reached its limit.
Trish is an alcoholic drifter whose cynicism about the Nicaraguan government is amply justified, but the script never provides much sense of what brought her to the country and kept her there long enough to become so mired.
She finds a possible escape route in Daniel DeHaven (Alwyn), a married Englishman who claims to be in Nicaragua consulting for an oil company in the process of investing there. Trish sleeps with him for $50, which prompts him to turn ruminative: “I commit adultery often. I never really miss anybody. I feel like I’m in danger of throwing my life away.” Dialogue like that echoes the clipped poetry of the late author Johnson’s prose, but it tends to sound phony coming out of these actors’ mouths.
Shuffling between his upscale accommodation at the Intercontinental and her more modest digs in a dive hotel, Trish and Daniel screw, swig cervezas and become mutually intoxicated. Flaky appearances to the contrary, Trish is sharp enough to spot Daniel’s supposed business associate (Danny Ramirez) as shady Costa Rican law enforcement, which means the Brit is perhaps not what he seems.
As threats start closing in on them, they skip town in a stolen car and attempt to cross the border into Costa Rica, but an American (Benny Safdie, miscast and wasted) whose detailed knowledge of both of them tags him as CIA, gets in the way of their escape plan.
After Denis put her distinctive stamp on romantic comedy and drama, respectively, in Let the sunshine in other Both Sides of the Bladeit seemed potentially intriguing to find the director exploring material set far from France, as she has done so memorably in African-set films like 1999’s stone-cold masterpiece Beau Travail. But Denis never really gets a firm grasp on her narrative here — either in terms of its backdrop of political unrest or its love story built on a foundation of tenuous trust, the couple’s isolation becoming a survival strategy. The pandemic mask requirement seems intended to enhance the sense of characters in hiding to various degrees, though that would require them to be somewhat intriguing to begin with.
The romance is not helped by the shallow characterizations of Qualley, who at various times seems poised to herald the dreaded return of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but whose toughness and savvy come across as a pose; and Alwyn, who’s mostly an empty white linen suit, and not one you can buy hot-wiring a car. The male lead was originally intended to be Robert Pattinson, who worked with Denis on her first English-language film, the sci-fi mystery high lifebut he was busy on Tenet other TheBatman. Taron Egerton was then cast but dropped out at the start of production for personal reasons.
The film was shot in Panama City and the lush jungle surrounds, under both blinding sun and torrental rain, and while it looks fine, with an adequate sense of place and lots of artfully draped intimacy in the sex scenes, it doesn’t match the expressive style of cinematographer Eric Gautier’s best work. Then there’s the score by English chamber-pop band Tindersticks, longtime Denis collaborators whose loose jazz riffs here seem antithetical to building suspense. There’s almost always something interesting about even Denis’ flawed films, but this troubled travelogue just feels a little off at every fumbled step.
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