Claire Denis’s Stars at Noon tied for the Grand Prix — an award that typically connotes second place — at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, though you would never guess that from its reviews. The Guardian called the film “uncertainly acted,” The Film Stage went for “unsteady” and “unconvincing,” The Crimson (yes, the Harvard Crimson, doing reporting at Cannes, I guess) labeled it “muddled.” At the time of writing, I can count the people I know who enjoyed the film on one hand, with everyone else disparaging its “miscasting” or “weird plotting” or “tedious” events.
Well, maybe it’s bravery, maybe it’s stupidity, but allow me to agree with French bureaucracy for the first time in my life: Not only is Stars at Noon decidedly not a disaster, it’s actually pretty great.
Denis’s film, which opens on Friday in theaters before being punted over to Hulu two weeks later, is an adaptation of a 1986 novel by a different Denis — Johnson, that is — titled The Stars at Noon, a tense, political book about a young journalist and an English businessman (or so he says) hoping to flee Nicaragua on the precipice of violence. Denis’s works have oscillated between acidic political reflections of colonialist Europe and ruminations on the great pains of relationships between men and women, particularly the self-sabotage of passion. Her other film this year, Both Sides of the Blade, depicted an overwrought and often melodramatic love triangle between Juliette Binoche and two men: one, her partner of almost a decade, and the other, her ex-boyfriend. A simple premise, executed long-windedly, with little optimism and less joy. That mode of cynicism is, luckily, used to great comedic effect in Stars at Noon, presenting a wry vision of neo-colonialism perpetuated by, with respect to the film’s main characters, idiots.
Stars at Noon shifts the book’s 1980s setting forward to the present day, N95s on faces and dangling from wrists, with Margaret Qualley and man of the hour Joe Alwyn starring as the central couple. As Trish, Qualley is much less a journalist than she is a blogger (same), though she’s actually not doing much writing at all. Her editor (John C. Reilly — perfect) has effectively cut her loose, leaving her passport-less with waning connections in Managua. Out of a desire for safety and a degree of financial security, Trish has turned to sex work, carrying on relationships with both a police officer and a government official in hopes of getting her paperwork in order so she can leave the country. Trish is manic and desperate, a drinker and a talker. She’s unsubtle. Funny, kind of, but not always on purpose. Qualley embodies her with big hair (she’s never looked more like her mother, Andie MacDowell) and a twitchy urgency; I have to suspect that the people who find her character too big or too irrational have never met a girl who is simply annoying.
Alwyn’s Daniel, her other half, is a white linen suit-clad businessman, which is to say that we also never see him working, and he carries a gun in his dopp kit. What he wants, what he does — none of it is clear. He says he’s there on behalf of an oil company, and he spouts the type of vague, altruistic language that many of the corporations that secretly want us all dead tend to use. The work he’s doing is to better all people, even the Nicaraguan people, he tells Trish. Fat chance, but whether or not we believe him is beside the point. What ensues is not a capital-R romance: The pair are drawn to each other less out of mutual attraction (let alone respect) and more out of desperation. She knows her way around; he has the funds. Maybe they can make it work.
If Trish and Daniel combined their intellect, they might be able to find a way out of their sticky situation and get back to their respective homes. But mostly they want to drink and have sex and occasionally get into arguments. A quiet tedium to their routine sets in: Someone follows them, they go on the run, they wind up back at Trish’s hotel, then hold out in her small room until the coast is once again clear. They try and fail and fuck ad nauseam. They don’t have profound chemistry, but they don’t need profound chemistry. Trish and Daniel are not motivated by their chemistry — he’s married, apparently, anyway — so much as by the increasing claustrophobia of their situation. Stars at Noon slowly reveals itself to be much less a plotted film than it is a dread-inducing hangout movie.
It’s easy and somewhat accurate to reduce this endorsement down to “if you fuck with Michael Mann’s Blackhat, you’ll probably fuck with with Stars at Noon,” but it does the latter a disservice to write off all its humor. Amid the danger and intrigue, the movie is also rather funny. Trish and Daniel give off a distinct “worst couple you know but have to keep hanging out with” vibe — the kind of relationship where, despite how much they might hate each other, everyone is convinced that they ought to try to make it work. That Trish gets laid off for always writing downer travel articles about local corruption is funny; that Joe Alwyn, as Daniel, says “suck me” is funny. Denis knows that her movie’s self-seriousness is a mask, one that hides a situation far darker and scarier than anyone in the world of Stars at Noon seems to realize.
Trish and Daniel give off a distinct “worst couple you know but have to keep hanging out with” vibe.
As a viewer, trying to adhere to the plot is a recipe for disaster — who exactly is after the protagonists and why now remains an elusive fact. Does it even really matter who is chasing them if they feel like eyes are watching them at every corner? Benny Safdie, of all people, shows up as a CIA agent, trying to make sense of it all, and even he’s muddled (or pretending to be) in hopes of obscuring the truth. As the situation grows worse, however, Trish and Daniel grow closer to each other. She’s too unpredictable and harsh for him; he’s too dull and reclusive for her. Critics have noted the characters are mismatched, or one of the actors is miscast, but it’s the friction between them that keeps Stars at Noon exciting. Whenever the two stumble on a moment of true connection or intimacy, it feels like a genuine discovery for both of them and the viewer. Maybe the situation is not as hopeless as it seems? Or maybe the lighting is just right at a deserted nightclub, the cool, lazy (in a good way) Tindersticks score hitting at the perfect tempo.
Denis is less concerned with the plotting of the source material, clearly more fascinated by the push and pull of two doomed people who barely get along who are also maybe falling in love. Her films about relationships — including the excellent Let the Sunshine In — seek optimism and humor in the cynical realities of short- and long-term relationships, including the truth that the world is not all that concerned with personal happiness or satisfaction. The “thrill” in this political thriller is much more in line with “are these two going to get into a fight or are they going to be normal for once?” than with the results of the forthcoming election or the cops on their tails. Denis pushes you to want Trish and Daniel to live, not because they deserve to or even because they're working hard to do so, but because we have to believe that something will come from her lovers’ closeness, even if it’s just sweat pooling at the base of their necks.