Sunday, October 2, 2022

STARS AT NOON



Claire Denis has been very unpredictable since Bastards (2013). She seems to have made a point to not repeat her past works but, with the exception of the masterful High Life (2018), maybe it wouldn’t hurt to go back and repeat/revisit/re-examine some of the themes from her earlier films that made her so great (I Can’t Sleep, No Fear No Die, Beau Travail, etc).
I guess she’s in another semi-experimental phase? And to be clear - when I say experimental I don’t mean like Stan Brakhage or Michael Snow. I just mean that she’s constantly trying something different than what we’re used to? Perhaps this is her “playful era”? Maybe that’s a better description. If that doesn’t work for you I guess one could say Claire Denis is in her late-period Francis Ford Coppola stage where she’s just trying out anything. The problem with that is she’s reached a point where her name holds a bit of weight in certain lanes and most people familiar with her work are going to mindlessly praise whatever she does because she’s a living legend.

Coming off the heels of the head-scratching disappointment that was Fire, Claire Denis’ latest film is an adaptation of the 80s novel; Stars At Noon where we follow an American drifter (“Trish”) stuck in Nicaragua in the midst of some vague revolution at the height of the Covid pandemic (Denis added the Covid element to the film version).

In a way - this recent output of Claire Denis’ reminds me of her first few post-Beau Travail films. She makes this critically acclaimed masterpiece (Beau Travail) and follows it up with an off-putting cannibal/Vampire sex thriller (Trouble Every Day), then an incredibly loose & surreal romantic tale in the form of Friday Night followed by an intentionally off-putting & extremely non-linear organ transplant film (The Intruder). I love Trouble Every Day, but there were walkouts when it debuted at Cannes and it took almost a decade for it to reach the cult status it has today. After Beau Travail people were expecting more of that and she intentionally gave folks the opposite. And almost no one talks about Friday Night or The Intruder outside of hardcore fans like myself.
What’s interesting is that Stars At Noon almost plays out like a straightforward remix of The Intruder. Just not as good. It would also make for a perfect double feature with Dee Rees’ The Last Thing He Wanted (there are a lot of similarities between the two ranging from both stories centered around white women stranded in a dangerous foreign land surrounded by intimidating brown men to both movies being quite disappointing).

Recently Claire Denis released one of her best films ever (High Life) only to follow it up with Fire (click here to read my thoughts) and Stars At Noon. It’s almost like Denis has this cat-like instinct where she intentionally avoids the wave of a successful film by making something “strange” immediately afterwards (the same could be said about her post-White Material/Pre-High Life work).

The only difference between this current phase of unexpectable films and the unexpectable films from the early aughts is that Trouble Every Day, Friday Night & The Intruder are great (to me at least). They have style. While Fire does have some style, it’s also kind of an empty exercise. And Stars At Noon has even less style in my opinion and feels a bit more empty than Fire. Sorry to sound so harsh but the last thing I want to do is be a fake/mindless fan praising anything my all-time favorite filmmaker does just because her name is attached to it.

It should be understood that because Denis is my favorite filmmaker I am a bit more critical. I’m sure the casual A24 fan looking for a drony erotic arthouse thriller will be satisfied with Stars At Noon. I just know what Claire Denis is capable of and this isn’t her at her best. Or even at her most entertaining…



I almost appreciate that she leaves behind her regular acting troop and uses a completely new cast of actors ranging from John C Reilly to Benny Safdie (Denis is almost 80 and still willing to step outside of her comfort zone). Joe Alwyn gives the standout performance as the mysterious/potentially dangerous love interest that Trish gets mixed up with. For those of you unfamiliar with Alwyn, check out Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir II where he gives another standout, yet quiet scene-stealing performance.
For me the biggest miscast was the star. Margaret Qualley’s borderline manic pixie dream-girl act just throws everything off (especially the chemistry with the other actors). It also doesn’t help that a good chunk of the supporting cast are clearly non-trained local people. So the combination of non-actors mixed with an unnecessarily schizophrenic performance just spells disaster.

I would suggest that Denis get her cast of regulars back together but she did that with her last film and that didn’t really work out either…




I have no interest in most Covid/Pandemic-related movies (like I said earlier - Denis added in the Covid backdrop for the movie), but I’ll make an exception here. Claire Denis is a master of hints & implications and she applies that to the Covid backdrop in Stars At Noon. We’re made aware that the story takes place in the midst of a pandemic (everyone is wearing masks and there is Covid testing scene), but at the same time it isn’t thrown in our faces (not that it needs to be as we’re still kind of in it today which is why I’m not super interested in watching anything Covid-related).


Ultimately this is another disappointment. Now…disappointment doesn’t necessarily mean “bad” or “terrible” (but if someone where to describe Stars At Noon as either of those things I wouldn’t go out of my way to question that). I admit that there are a handful of quick moments that left me transfixed & totally immersed only to quickly be distracted by Qualley’s weird acting choices of randomly yelling and/or smiling like an unstable person or coming off like a misbehaved cute child in the face of danger). The excellent Tindersticks score is the one non-blemished aspect of the movie and a constant reminder that we actually are watching a Claire Denis film.
Stars At Noon is more of an almost interesting yet ultimately empty misfire (I wish the term interesting didn’t have such a negative/bland stigma attached to it because when used properly it is a helpful term to describe things).

I still don’t want this to discourage any of you. I actually want folks to watch it so you can come back to this review and possibly persuade me to look at it with a different lens. Or just share my disappointment…