‘Stars at Noon’ Review: A Not-So-Innocent Abroad

Claire Denis’s captivating new film, starring Margaret Qualley and based on the novel by Denis Johnson, treads familiar territory in a foreign land.

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By Austin Considine

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Based on the 1986 novel “The Stars at Noon” by Denis Johnson, Claire Denis’s adaptation reprises themes to which she has often returned — colonialism, dislocation, the complications of looking — since her seismic 1988 debut, “Chocolat.” The results are sometimes wobbly, but this much remains stable: No living director better understands the politics of sensuality, the terrible power of light and shadow on skin.

Denis’s latest not-so-innocent abroad is Trish (Margaret Qualley), a willowy young white American in Nicaragua who becomes ensnared in a corrupt system. Her claims to be a journalist are murky, but she has clearly upset the wrong people somehow, reduced to trading sex for cash and favors in hopes that she can reclaim her passport and escape.

In this context she meets Daniel (Joe Alwyn), a mysterious and handsome British man, and the erotic intensity of their easy intimacy bends everything toward it; Daniel, it seems, has his own troubles, and soon the star-crossed couple are running for the border, pursued by a variety of shadowy goons.

Denis nibbles around the edges of plot and motivation in ways that sometimes struggle to cohere — details are spare even for a director justly celebrated for her elliptical poesy — and in important ways, “Stars” lacks the specificity of her best films. Shot in Panama and updated to the pandemic present (Johnson’s novel is set amid the Nicaraguan revolution), its sense of place feels less indelible than incidental.

But as usual in Denis’s work, the smallest act or subtlest gesture can open entire worlds of feeling and consequence. In her hands, Qualley is a force of nature, moving through space with a manic freedom and energy reserved only for the young, beautiful and damned.

Stars at Noon
Rated R for abundant sweaty sex and some violence. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes. In theaters and available to rent or buy on Apple TV, Google Play and other streaming platforms and pay TV operators.

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