Cannes 2022 review: Stars at Noon (Claire Denis)

“There is something strangely alluring about the film, which in no way can be described as ‘good’ but has a mood and atmosphere that is quite intoxicating, and a central couple that exudes Denis’ trademark sensuality.”

In 2008 Claire Denis made 35 Shots of Rum. Maybe that many is a bit much, but going in sober for her latest film Stars at Noon might not be the best strategy. Her protagonist certainly doesn’t, as she actually might just reach those 35 shots before the end of the film. Adapted from Denis Johnson’s same-titled 1984 novel, this erotically charged but intellectually confusing film is as foggy as one would feel after downing a streak of shots indeed. And yet, and yet…

There is something strangely alluring about the film, which in no way can be described as ‘good’ but has a mood and atmosphere that is quite intoxicating, and a central couple that exudes Denis’ trademark sensuality. What could have been a straightforward thriller in the hands of lesser directors is turned into a messy but psychologically intriguing character study set to a fabulous, brooding jazz score by Tindersticks.

Moved from the novel’s original Sandinista era to the present (a choice that makes very little sense), Stars at Noon tells the story of Trish (Margaret Qualley), a freelance journo who travelled through Central America to write and sell travel articles, but got stuck in Nicaragua after writing a political piece on local corruption. Her passport has been taken away by an army officer (Nick Romano), which whom she occasionally exchanges sex for the privilege of not ending up in jail. She gives the same carnal favours to an older government official in exchange for his help, and also sells her body to any willing foreigner in order to get her hands on hard currency, as her local black market coin is worthless. One night Trish runs into a handsome Englishman in the hotel bar of Managua’s Intercontinental and talks her way into his bedroom. Daniel (Joe Alwyn) is mysterious about his reasons for being in Nicaragua, and when Trish sees him at breakfast with someone she recognizes as a Costa Rican cop, likely working with some government agency, she convinces Daniel to try to get out of the country (though why they then aim for Costa Rica is befuddling). Somewhere on the road they are intercepted by a CIA agent (Benny Safdie, in outstanding form), who is clearly after Daniel and little more than bemused by Trish. As their rum-infused romance ends on the border, the story ties up nicely when Trish gets her passport back.

Stars at Noon drifts on a sweaty, humid mood more than on a solid, logical narrative, Denis using the novel’s original (misguided) sexy attraction to Central America’s dangers of the ’80s to create a film that leans more on the eroticism than the thriller aspect inherent in Trish and Daniel’s odyssey. Characters are secondary, wandering souls that lack aim in life, just like so many of Denis’ characters throughout her filmography. Not all actors are equally equipped to deal with characters that offer very little to hold onto, and sadly the pair that struggles most is the central one. Qualley’s cynical alcoholic is unconvincing, the actress lacking the acerbic quality to make her lines as biting as intended. Alwyn, taking a role earlier meant for Robert Pattinson and later Taron Egerton, plays his Daniel, white linen suit and all, as if he stepped out of a Jane Austen costume drama. Neither character is easy to care for, so when Safdie finally shows up in the last act you almost root actively against the two. Denis likely doesn’t care, more interested as she is in texturing the story than actually developing her characters.

An easy watch (though perhaps not at 22:30 at the tail end of an exhausting festival), Stars at Noon is bound to be one of those films you end up viewing if it comes up on your set late at night. You pour a glass of rum, watch Qualley work her way through lines like “Your skin is so white, it’s like fucking a cloud“, enjoy John C. Reilly’s one-scene Zoom cameo (did he actually need to come to a set for this? Questions to ponder), and wonder how Alwyn’s suit stays so white for as long as it does. Next day’s hangover will be courtesy of the rum, because the film will likely be forgotten by then, a distant, sweaty fever dream.