A Languid Romantic Thriller Saved By Strong Performances

Jan 2, 2023

Home Movie Reviews Stars At Noon Review: A Languid Romantic Thriller Saved By Strong Performances

Struck by pacing issues & a lack of chemistry between its leads, Stars at Noon is saved by Qualley & Alwyn’s performances & a lush vision from Denis.

Margaret Qualley and Joe Alwyn in Stars at Noon

Adapted from Denis Johnson’s novel, Claire Denis’ Stars at Noon is an exercise in patience. The film, which premiered earlier this year at Cannes and shared the Grand Prix with Close, has gone through many iterations in its development. Robert Pattinson was originally cast as Daniel opposite star Margaret Qualley before Taron Egerton joined and then dropped out of the picture. Joe Alwyn would eventually take on the lead role and Stars at Noon would go from a story set against the backdrop of the Nicaraguan revolution in the 1980s to one taking place during the COVID-19 pandemic. Struck by pacing issues and a lack of chemistry between its leads, Stars at Noon is saved by Qualley and Alwyn’s performances and a lush vision from Denis punctuated by an excellent score.

Trish (Qualley) is stuck in a Nicaraguan city in the middle of the pandemic when she meets Daniel (Alwyn). Desperate to get to Costa Rica, Trish is working the problem from all angles – a sketchy government official and now the mysterious British man named Daniel she meets in a hotel bar one night. But what begins as a one-night tryst (“I’m not here for the dollars, I’m here for the air conditioning”) turns into a full-blown affair. Before long, the pair are proclaiming their love for each other and running from Nicaraguan officials and the CIA toward the Costa Rican border.

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Joe Alwyn and Maragret Qualley in Stars at Noon

Trish, floundering as a journalist, turns to sex work and, for the first hour of Stars at Noon, she steals toilet paper from hotel bathrooms, crashes hotel buffets, and is mostly ignored by Daniel in between bouts of midnight hookups. Still, the attraction between Daniel and Trish is undeniable — at least, that’s what the movie wants viewers to think.

Qualley earned acclaim for her role in Netflix’s limited series The Maid, but she rose to prominence on HBO’s The Leftovers in which she played the embattled daughter to Justin Theroux’s existential crisis-having father. In Stars at Noon, Qualley seems to take everything she has displayed in past efforts and amplifies it here into a sort of nihilistic malaise that has her wandering from air-conditioned hotel lobbies to sweaty, neon-lit bars. Trish tells Daniel at one point, “I need to feel like I’m moving,” but that movement does not belie any sort of goal beyond movement itself. Her flippant desperation and her melancholy in the face of the pandemic and other geopolitical circumstances all ring true because Qualley puts her all into the character.

Joe Alwyn and Margaret Qualley in Stars at Noon

Daniel finds himself wrapped up in her orbit, but it’s never clear whether Trish’s sheer force of will or Daniel’s own apathy has led him away from the Nicaraguan city where the film begins and closer to escape at the Costa Rican border. Alwyn isn’t very expressive and while it works for the character, it’s this distance that perhaps undermines the chemistry that Trish and Daniel so desperately need. The scenes of them together are shot with an intimacy that feels lacking in the relationship between the two, underscored by a thriller plot that gets lost in the romance of the movie. Moments like Trish finding a gun in Daniel’s bag or a truck full of armed guards pulling up to Daniel’s hotel are strangely subdued, the tension that is supposed to come from these moments are wrung out by the overwrought relationship at the film’s center. Still, Stars at Noon is a lush, if somewhat forgettable fever dream. It’s Denis who pulls it all together, her will matching Trish’s own in bringing this landscape to life.

Hiding within Stars at Noon is a lean erotic thriller, one where the lack of chemistry between Alwyn and Qualley can be overlooked both because of Denis’ directing and the standalone performances of its cast. Unfortunately, the film gets bogged down by pacing issues, hoping to coast on the chemistry of Qualley and Alwyn, but runs out of gas long before danger starts to creep in just past the hour mark. One wonders if the adaptation would have had more energy had Denis chosen to keep Stars at Noon set during the 80s Nicaraguan Revolution. As it stands, the only energy in the film comes from Qualley’s performance and the mystery surrounding Alwyn’s Daniel, which is just enough to make Stars at Noon enjoyable if not remarkable.

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Stars at Noon is in theaters on Friday, October 14. The film is 135 minutes long and rated R for sexual content, nudity, language and some violence.

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