Cannes 2022

The Stars at Noon review – a sweltering love story spoiled by zero chemistry

Revered French filmmaker Claire Denis delivers a baffling and unerotic adaptation starring Margaret Qualley and Joe Alwyn

“Suck me,” says Joe Alwyn's Daniel, partway through Claire Denis’ woozy, doom-laden love story The Stars at Noon, based on the 1986 novel by Denis Johnson. Holed up and on the run in Central America with fellow foreigner Trish (Margaret Qualley), it’s a line that epitomises the baffling nature of the revered French filmmaker's latest feature, a movie that exposes itself as more of a misfire the longer it goes on. Is the line meant to be funny? Is the dialogue supposed to be heightened? Is it a case of something being lost in translation?

Few directors are capable of spinning the erotic and sensual like Denis, a filmmaker whose career has been defined by palpable yearning, feelings bubbling beneath the surface, a sweaty sense of desire rendered through an intoxicating haze. And this Graham Greene-like tale of wayward foreigners who find themselves caught in a kind of purgatory, clinging to one another for dear life with no sense of past or future, seems entirely matched to the filmmaker who gave us the African-set masterpiece White Material.

So what has gone wrong? Put it down to the miscasting of the two leads in Margaret Qualley, whose failed journalist, low on cash and now selling herself for sex, never convinces us of the circumstances she finds herself in, and Joe Alwyn's enigmatic businessman, whose tendency to read his lines in the same unaffected voice limits his emotional reach. Qualley’s naked performance is admirably dedicated, but the film never escapes the feeling that an actress with a harder, world-weary disposition would have made far more sense in the role. And in Alwyn's case, it's difficult not to mourn the loss of Robert Pattinson, who was originally cast in the part and would have likely enhanced its steamy appeal.

A sultry slow dance sequence, cast in shimmering blue light, is the only scene in the film that captures the couple's raw attraction and feels distinctly Denis in execution. But this small amount of heat is not enough to power a 135-minute feature, while the director's decision to transpose the action of the original novel from politically turbulent '80s Nicaragua to the present day – and during a COVID outbreak, no less – creates something that feels bizarrely at odds with its origins.

The majority of the film, packed with clunky, unnatural dialogue and moving in frustrating circles, is taken up by an incomprehensible plot that not only fails to engage but also distracts from what should have been an intense love affair. Stars at Noon only really comes to life when Bennie Safdie – better known as a director than an actor – turns up in a small role as a CIA operative and, with less than ten minutes of screen-time, acts circles around his co-stars.

This is not a boring film, but merely a perplexing one that falls down in the one department you'd expect Denis to have a better handle on than most filmmakers: an ability to perceive and communicate human chemistry.

The Stars at Noon was screened as part of the Cannes Film Festival 2022. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

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