When it comes to cinema, chemistry is one of those ineffable, mystical factors that can make or break a story. You could have a film that’s composed of only two characters, and if they have good chemistry then boom, that’s it, that’s all you need. The other elements of the story don’t even need to be all that much; strong chemistry can carry things over the line. Conversely, you might have a movie that suffers from a lack of chemistry between its leads, and it doesn’t matter how good the rest of it might be, that black hole at the centre of things can still collapse the rest of the project into itself. The latter scenario is sadly the one that describes Stars at Noon, the new feature from iconic director Claire Denis (Beau travail), which provides glimpses of a dramatic and gripping denouncement of 21st-century imperialism that are ultimately overshadowed by the gaping maw of nothingness where the chemistry between its leads should be.
Adapted from a 1986 novel by Denis Johnson, Stars at Noon features notable nepo baby Margaret Qualley and slightly less blue-ticked-heritage-on-Wikipedia Joe Alwyn as a pair of Westerners who find love amidst political upheaval in Nicaragua. The source novel was set shortly after the Sandinista revolution, whereas the film moves the story to the present day-the shadow of Covid-19 hanging over the country as much as the ill-defined political unrest. Johnson, who wrote the book with the intention of using Nicaragua and its Central American socioeconomic situation as an allegory for hell, was the son of a US State Department official who worked as a liaison between the CIA and the federal propaganda bureau, the United States Information Agency. It’s always interesting (to say the least) whenever Western authors decide to use a country whose political reality has been shaped by the rapacious and criminal policies of their home nation as the backdrop for their stories. Sometimes, searing insight and honest reflection follow. Other times, not so much.
But I digress. Compared to the source material, Denis’ adaptation of Stars at Noon features significantly less explicit politics-at least not in terms of what the audience is actually shown. The film’s Nicaragua is quite clearly in the midst of significant political turmoil, but our perspective stays almost entirely with Qualley’s out of her depth sort-of-journalist, as she bobs along on the surface, at the mercies of currents she neither understands nor respects. Alwyn’s shady oil company contractor doesn’t fare much better; perennially smug and clad in a classic white coloniser suit, he represents the exploitative corporate interests that have ravaged those parts of the world under the yoke of Western imperialism. The director’s attitude towards colonialism has featured heavily throughout her career, and she has never shied away from shining a light on the criminality of her homeland and others in the same sphere-it’s such a shame that in Stars at Noon that is woven into the story in such a way that might be quite devastating, if it was anchored to a better pair of central performances.
To be fair to Qualley and Alwyn, neither character is particularly well-written. Both have a habit of breaking into awkward, noir-esque one liners that are meant to come off as witty and enticing, but which just end up sounding anachronistic instead. Perhaps this is intentional, and designed, along with their disrespectful attitude to the land they’ve invaded, to reinforce their status as patronising colonisers. If it is, I applaud the intention, but for one reason or another, it doesn’t come across that way. To be slightly harsher on the acting pair again, it’s possible that a more skilled duo might have pulled it off. To break up the spark-free dialogue, Stars at Noon features a healthy amount of spark-free sex scenes. Again, I applaud the intention. To paraphrase Orwell: In the seemingly increasingly sexless cinematic landscape we’re finding ourselves in, to include some genuine horniness seems almost a revolutionary act. Alas, the execution leaves a lot to be desired (ha!) here. There is more longing contained within one glance exhanged between the Héloïse and Marianne in Portrait of a Lady on Fire than there is in the whole of Stars at Noon.
That’s not to say the film is without merit. This is still Claire Denis we’re talking about, and for it to be a complete misfire would be a real surprise. The camerawork and direction is strong, grounding the action with a palpable sense of place; the soundtrack, too, delights, its jazzy looseness helping to generate a feeling of dislocation and uncertainty. And the indictment of both clueless and malicious Western interests intervening in other nations for their own gain that the film hints at—and the way it tries to deliver that message by showing the suffering of some of the less competent cogs in that machine—could be potent indeed. Alas, there are only a handful of moments where Stars at Noon appears to get close to that intention. I couldn’t help but think of a movie like Alan J. Pakula’s Klute, a stone-cold classic of a conspiracy thriller, in which the actual details of the plot—once revealed—are not altogether that interesting, but which completely sweeps you up in its story and its intrigue thanks to its superior atmosphere and charismatic performances. There, the destination doesn’t matter nearly as much as the journey. Evil may be banal, but it’s difficult to watch stories about it that reflect that particular quality.