By Richard Ades
When an American journalist has an affair with a British businessman in Stars at Noon, it begins as a financial transaction: She offers to sleep with him in exchange for American dollars.
Trish (Margaret Qualley) is in dire straits, being stuck in Nicaragua with no money, no passport and no support from her stateside editor. But she finds herself in even direr straits after hooking up with Daniel (Joe Alwyn), who claims to do humanitarian work for an oil company but attracts an unusual amount of attention from a scary Costa Rican cop (Danny Ramirez).
Why? Why, indeed. Director and co-scripter Claire Denis never explains why Daniel is in the cop’s (and eventually the CIA’s) crosshairs, nor does she fill in Trish’s back story. The acclaimed French filmmaker is more interested in establishing a tense atmosphere that justifies the new couple’s eventual run for their lives. In this, she succeeds, though she takes so much time doing so that even the frequent interludes of sex and nudity may fail to keep viewers intrigued.
Stars at Noon is based on Denis Johnson’s 1986 novel, which was set during a U.S.-led attempt to overthrow Daniel Ortega’s leftist government. The new movie takes place in COVID-era Nicaragua, as can be seen by the face masks characters don when entering public places.
Much has changed in Nicaragua between the 1980s and the present—in particular, Ortega has morphed from a revolutionary leader to a standard-issue dictator who jails opponents. However, the movie only hints at the current dynamic by showing ever-present armed troops in the streets and by allowing the two lovers to briefly address the political situation: Trish predicts the government will find an excuse to cancel the upcoming elections, while Daniel holds out hope that supporters of democracy will prevail.
What’s behind Trish’s cynicism and Daniel’s optimism? If only we knew, the characters, and thus their romance, would be more interesting.
It’s particularly frustrating that we know so little about Trish, the chief protagonist. At one point, she apologizes to an official for writing a story about kidnappings and other presumably government-sanctioned crimes, which suggests she was once an idealistic reporter rather than a desperate woman who tries to dilute her misery with alcohol. Qualley does what she can to add depth to her portrayal, as does Alwyn, but the script gives them little help.
Inevitably, Stars at Noon becomes a couple-on-the-run movie, harking back to any number of flicks made throughout the history of cinema. The difference is that in most of its predecessors, we knew who the characters were and why they were forced to flee. Filmmaker Denis is purposefully vague on both counts, leaving us with little reason to care—or to feel anything except a general sense of dread. That, the film does well.
Rating: 2½ stars (out of 5)
Stars at Noon (rated R) opens Oct. 14 in select theaters and on demand, and will begin screening Oct. 28 on Hulu.