Tomorrow sees the online and limited theatrical release of Claire Denis’s Stars at Noon, a film that was met with mixed reviews and a Grand Prix when it premiered in Cannes. Dispatching from the festival to Sight and Sound,Nicolas Rapold first established that he had long been “captivated” by Denis’s work, “from the suspension-bridge tensions of L’intrus (2004) to the perfect dance of Beau travail (1999) to the familial caresses of 35 Shots of Rum (2008) to even the unspeakable horrors of High Life (2018) and Bastards (2013). Each film casts its own spell, slipping into a sensual rhythm of movement and editing on the downbeat.” But Rapold found Stars at Noon “remarkably short on evocative mood, in a way that seems to confirm a shift suggested by this year’s Berlinale premiere Both Sides of the Blade and 2017’s Let the Sunshine In, where angst ultimately prevails over beguiling sensuality.”
Working with cowriters Léa Mysius and Andrew Litvack and shooting in Panama, Denis shifted the setting of Denis Johnson’s 1986 novel from the politically unstable Nicaragua of 1984 to the politically unstable—and pandemic-stricken—Nicaragua of the present moment. Margaret Qualley plays Trish, an American reporter who hasn’t landed a byline in a while. Picking up men and charging for sex, Trish finds herself falling for white suit–clad Daniel (Joe Alwyn), who claims to work for an oil company—but he may have an even more urgent need to get out of the country than Trish does.
“It’d be one thing if we got the sense that these two desperate characters were dangerously wrong for each other,” writes Adam Nayman at Reverse Shot, “but it’s more like they’re being shoved together by the script: the almost hypnotic autonomy that Denis usually confers on her protagonists—the way her characters push against not only obstacles and each other but the boundaries of the movie itself—is swapped out for a more mechanical brand of manipulation. As a result, the nightmarishly violent imagery and quasi-action-movie intensity of the closing passages is weirdly rote.” At the same time, Stars at Noon “is never less than compelling to look at and listen to.”
At In Review Online, Patrick Preziosi suggests that the film finds Denis “reprising her haphazard union of variegated camera styles after the somewhat uniform Both Sides of the Blade, and her almost erratic rhythms coalesce into a sublime whole, the perfect externalization of a lovers-on-the-run experience.” Writing for Screen Slate, though, Kit Duckworth notes that for “the first time while watching a Claire Denis film, I wondered if ambivalence sufficed, if it was enough to show white characters running before a Global South reduced to a rear-projection screen.”
“Meanings, meanings,” grumbles Ryan Coleman at Literary Hub, “those overvalued, crumpled up little receipts for artistic experiences that would often be better off left with the cashier.” Stars at Noon is “a sultry, spellbinding journey through an intricately pictured land of creeping vines, wild dogs, and unknowable men. That Denis strangely mixes temporalities—keeping the revolutionary setting but importing modern quirks like cell phones and Covid paraphernalia—adds yet another wrinkle that makes this film one of her very richest in recent years.”
Caspar Salmon disagrees. At the Daily Beast, he argues that a major problem is “the flagrant miscasting of Alwyn and Qualley,” who comes off “like a cute student on spring break; Alwyn is a handsome corpse in a jacket.” But the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin finds Qualley to be “a revelation here, teasing out her character Trish’s flaws to the point where they become addictive to watch, and imbuing her with a sometimes-nervy, sometimes-forlorn physicality that recalls a young Juliette Binoche.” Claire Denis “has crafted a film that syncs your heartbeat to its own intoxicating rhythms: a full-body immersion in uneasy pleasures.”
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