The Stars At Noon Review: A Lifeless Romance Unravels Slowly And Excruciatingly [Cannes]

At the very beginning, "The Stars at Noon" has an intriguing concept — is it love, or just survival?

Margaret Qualley stars as Trish, an American woman trapped in Nicaragua who is forced to question her own motives when a wealthy Englishman appears to offer her a lifeline. The opening scenes strike a strange tone as increasingly tense situations are offset by a light jazz score. It's perhaps symbolic of Trish's situation. She's often truly in peril, trapped by a foreign regime with no way home ... but her blasé attitude makes it appear as though it's just another Tuesday.

Trish claims to be a journalist, but that's not exactly true, either. Instead, she hangs around local luxury hotel bars selling sex for U.S. dollars, and when she spots Daniel (Joe Alwyn) at the bar of a local hotel, he's just another potential client. Based on the 1986 novel by Denis Johnson, "The Stars at Noon" modernizes this tale of love during the revolution. This time, the empty streets and ghost town vibes are a product of COVID-19 lockdowns. It's an interesting take, but it's soon forgotten once the real story kicks in — the sex, lies, and political intrigue that gets between Trish and Daniel.

"The Stars at Noon" gets off to a promising start, drip-feeding Trish's story to us in between beautifully tense scenes across grimy, war-torn vistas. But the ticking time bomb of Trish and Daniel's relationship soon fizzles out.

A not-so steamy romance

I'll put it simply — Trish and Daniel have zero chemistry. Sure, they have some moments, but in the long run, both Qualley and Alwyn struggle to keep up the pretense. A handful of steamy sex scenes underline a relationship that's based on sex. There's even a haunting moment when the couple dance in an empty bar.

The trouble is, it takes so much effort to keep the pair connected, it's hardly worth it at all. Their relationship should smolder — it's supposed to be a stark contrast to the bored, languid sex Trish has with a Nicaraguan cop (Nick Romano) in the film's early scenes. But honestly, while there's a bit more effort, and a lot more panting, the looks between the couple are hollow and unconvincing.

There's more chemistry between her and a bottle of rum. That's not to say that Qualley and Alwyn don't step up from time to time. Qualley, in particular, does a great job of portraying the neediness and alcoholism of a woman on a path to self-destruction. But "Stars at Noon" is best when it's focussing on the trials and tribulations of Trish's life in Nicaragua. In fact, the film is most interesting in its opening scenes.

Watching Trish's life unravel around her to the tune of light jazz presents a truly thrilling sort of tension that just isn't captured for much of the rest of the film. The addition of a tepid and unconvincing relationship makes it a lot worse.

A not-so thrilling thriller

When it comes down to it, "The Stars at Noon" is a romance set within a political thriller. The trouble is, it's not that thrilling, either. There's clearly something fishy going on as Daniel, who claims to work for a large oil company, is in hot water with the local authorities. It's an interesting start, and a scene where they're followed by a Costa Rican cop is mildly intriguing. Unfortunately, it rarely goes anywhere interesting.

The action stalls almost immediately, trailing off like the couple's dim relationship. The almost relentless hues of Nicaraguan daytime, in tandem with the weary performances of its cast, leave the film feeling exhausting rather than tense. In trying to construct a pressure cooker, director Claire Denis has instead let out all the steam. There are still some interesting themes explored in "The Stars at Noon," especially when it comes to Trish's life in Nicaragua. But the final act is dominated by the presence of Benny Safdie as a CIA man who proposes an offer she can't refuse.

It gets a bit more interesting here, if only briefly, and Safdie clearly has fun with the role. But even he can't save "The Stars at Noon" from itself. The end result is a slow-burn romantic thriller that's so slow it doesn't really seem to go anywhere. It's such a shame, too. The stellar cast and interesting premise show a lot of promise early doors ... but neither quite lives up to expectations.

/Film Rating: 5 out of 10

"Stars at Noon" premiered as part of the Cannes Film Festival 2022.