Watching Margaret Qualley in Claire Denis’ ‘Stars at Noon’ can be both an exhilarating and frustrating experience. The young star, who played the clueless hippie temptress in Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ has got game beyond just that and if Netflix’s Maid wasn’t an example enough, Denis’ Grand-Prix winning drama is here to prove it yet again. Qualley is literally the beating heart of this hot and bothered drama that occasionally becomes so meandering and clueless of its existence that it feels like the actress is doing a whole lot of heavy lifting for no reason whatsoever.

Based on “The Stars at Noon” by late Sonoma County author Denis Johnson, Denis’ adaptation updates the 1984 setting from the novel to present-day pandemic-era Nicaragua and follows the extremely freewheeling journey of one Trish Johnson (Margaret Qualley). She is an American journalist who has lost both her press credentials and passport and is leading a life of complete disparity. She offsets it by sleeping with people who have little to no power over her situation of not being able to leave the Central American nation. When not doing that, she is either getting head-on drunk, or stealing hotel shampoos or toilet paper to keep living a life that she is unable to escape, but so dearly wants to.

Enters Daniel (Joe Alwyn), a handsome British businessman who is in the country for something that we are only made aware of vaguely. Trish and Daniel meet at a bar where they are the only customers and later have raunchy, steamy sex that is captured with genuine eroticism. Trish claims that she is sleeping with him for ‘American dollars’ but later also says that she is doing so because she wanted to be in ‘air conditioning.’ Some more vague, supposedly flirtatious exchanges after, the two of them seem to form some kind of connection in a foreign land that feels like it is under some kind of political unrest.

The rest of the narrative deals with how both Daniel and Trish both find some kind of solace in each other while loneliness and isolation set in. The heat in the streets is punctuated with that of the sheets and it feels like a genuine sense of warmth and love that permits between them. And in spite of this feeling being quite situational, both Alwyn and Qualley make it incredibly believable. So much so that for a brief moment you forget that the entirety of the film is not about their relationship but much more.

Stars at Noon Movie Review (1)

Now, coming to the film itself, updating the narrative, and giving it a contemporary treatment is a noble cause and frankly, I’m always up for it. However, what Denis does here feels like a misstep more than anything else. The novel, which is set in 1984 features the sensual relationship of the protagonists during a time when Nicaragua was governed by the Sandinistas. It was a strange and political time when any non-local entity was treated as a threat. By setting the film in a pandemic-stricken world, Denis is only able to manifest a sense of isolation and longing, but the political unrest, in spite of being all over the film, doesn’t feel palpable.

Since we are never truly made aware of who Daniel is, in addition to being some sort of Oil Businessman, one is unable to really pinpoint why the turn towards the end of the film should really feel like one should care for the two of them. Trish is a headstrong woman whose only aim is to escape the travesty of a heat-induced country, but her interests feel quite muddled,  whenever she is left to fend for herself. The encounter with John C. Riley, who appears in a brief cameo as one of the editors Trish once wrote for, gives us a window into her psyche but is not enough to understand her undertaking to cover a story there, counter-arguing the types of character she is made out to be.

The romance that brews out of thin air is made believable by Qualley’s commitment to never let Trish become a woman who doesn’t own up to her substance. But, Denis’ editing takes that away from her as the move clearly meanders aimlessly before really leading you from one point to the other. This is a familiar issue for Denis, whose other film from the year, the truly apolitical Both Sides of the Blade suffers from some serious tedium too.

In addition to that, it feels like Claire Denis is unable to really capture the true political essence of her narrative here, which is why she waywardly tries to find solace in her interesting, but half-realized character motivations. I believe the Central American setting, instead of Denis’ usual West African one really hampers this story that often feels like it is looking for some kind of poetic justice in the chaos, but fails to find one because the chaos never truly takes hold on you.


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Stars at Noon Trailer

Stars at Noon (2022) Movie Links – IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes
Stars at Noon (2022) Movie Cast – Margaret Qualley, Joe Alwyn, Benny Safdie, Danny Ramirez
Where to watch Stars at Noon

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