Mr. Taylor Swift and Margaret Qualley have lots of sex in The Stars at Noon. If only they had chemistry.


 Mr. Taylor Swift and Margaret Qualley have lots of sex in The Stars at Noon.  If only they had chemistry.

Even the best film directors need good actors. Claire Denis has worked with an informal troupe of actors who have appeared in her films throughout her career, such as Gregoire Colin and Alex Descas, and has had more outstanding leads this century, from Vincent Lindon on bastards and Isabelle Huppert white stuff to Juliette Binoche Let the sunshine in. These are performers who have the guts and experience to host a film and the acting skills to work with Denis’ intricate dialogue and elliptical filmmaking. Margaret Qualley and Joe Alwyn lead The stars at noon as two lovers caught up in political intrigue in Nicaragua, and it’s a glaring flaw here, unfortunately, that they can’t carry the film. Both are miscasts, both lack chemistry, and neither have a very fun time with the dialogue. From early reactions at Cannes, it’s clear that Joe Alwyn’s reading of the phrase “Suck me” will become legendary, but I’d suggest that Qualley’s take on the phrase “I like eggs” should be the real cult saying here.

Qualley plays Trish Johnson, a young journalist who, for one reason or another, is stuck in politically fraught Nicaragua and unable to earn money to fly home; her passport was also confiscated. Here she resorts to sex work to make ends meet and is already terribly jaded when we meet her. One day she happens to meet Daniel (Alwyn), a seedy young Englishman on some mission in the country who looks like some kind of agent and is constantly being watched by secret agents. The couple embarks on an intoxicating sexual affair. Trish and Daniel soon find themselves in trouble – well, not soon enough considering the movie is 2.5 hours long – and are forced to resort to desperate measures to outrun their pursuers.

The stars at noon are two films in one, one notably unsuccessful and the other not quite so unsuccessful but still unsuccessful. There is a prominent love story with some sex scenes in sweaty Nicaraguan hotels and the couple slow dancing in deserted cocktail bars; and there are political intrigues where various mysterious agents emerge and are vaguely menacing. The latter aspect is not handled well: there is a lack of clarity in Denis’ storytelling, and the film suffers from not having the kind of ambiguous, far-reaching politics of a project like bastardswhere Denis has brilliantly dissected the evils that bind us all.

The stars at noon also doesn’t have enough actors, business, and life behind it — it’s clearly been affected by COVID regulations — so it doesn’t have the fever necessary to make us believe in the hot danger of the situation. Instead, Alwyn and Qualley run through completely deserted streets and desperately drink rum in various empty shacks, which tends to undermine the feeling of living on the edge. Furthermore, the blatant miscasting of Alwyn and Qualley in the lead roles bogs down the film’s idea as a political thriller: these characters should be so much more desperate, cynical, tough, grizzled, embattled, hard living – in one word, genuine. Margaret Qualley never breaks a sweat and always looks like a cute coed on spring break; Alwyn is a handsome corpse in a jacket.

Margaret Qualley never breaks a sweat and always looks like a cute coed on spring break; Alwyn is a handsome corpse in a jacket.

The other thread of the story – the passionate affair between the two – is rather let down by the fact that Qualwyn has no chemistry at all, none, no junk, no iota; but if you can look past that, Denis’ sensual aesthetic is much more in tune with that dimension of the film, and there’s some fun, overt sex stuff in the script. Especially when we see that the couple had sex while Trish is on her period, there’s an over-Denis touch, because Daniel’s chest is covered with menstrual blood, which she gently flings from her body: that’s good, open sex with Denis, as usual Eye for color and factual handling of taboos. Another scene – the “suck me” scene – in which the two lovers are covered in drops of water, lying on hotel sheets in the neon lights and drying themselves with heaters, is achingly beautiful. In general, Denis sums up those bodies beautifully, like in a gorgeous scene in a bar set to a beautiful Tindersticks song, all pink lights and electric blue backdrops: it’s so dazed and radiant, giving a subtle sense of the passion that should seize these characters.

Denis’ dialogue, adapted from the book by Denis Johnson and in collaboration with filmmaker Léa Mysius, feels quite stiff and unnatural at times: there’s a prevailing sense that the tight lines and quick wits between the characters are a bit Graham Greene Gunpowder should have, but the dialogue here is pretty mindless. In a confusing early scene, Daniel asks Trish if she’s a prostitute or a press, and she replies, “We’re all press,” to which he quips, “Then we’re all for sale.” It’s not very funny, but it might be cleaned up into something passable – and these actors make a meal out of it. On another occasion, Daniel remarks, “Nothing like running away in an old Toyota.” What? Actor Danny Ramirez, who plays a menacing Nicaraguan security agent, is having a better time of things, with a beautifully direct reading of the line: “I don’t like people like you. I don’t like giving you money,” he conveyed to Trish. This kind of shallowness serves the film much better than ironic/desperate banter, as it serves a broadly anti-American policy that could use elaboration.

stars at noon is decidedly insignificant Claire Denis – a film that invites unflattering comparisons white stuff and bastards, and a film where something has obviously gone wrong or perhaps still needs polishing. (The cut presented at Cannes was rushed into the competition and could plausibly be reworked for its general release.) The question of the leading actors is crucial, for Denis’ world and style are so special that they are less than deeply touched perfect performer. But not everything is a disaster here: the film’s sheer style in particular is so inviting, oozing with all the sensuality the central pairing lacks. stars at noondespite all the flaws, still offers an opportunity to see a master stylist at work.

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