Mr. Taylor Swift and Margaret Qualley have lots of sex in ‘The Stars at Noon’.  If only they had chemistry.

Mr. Taylor Swift and Margaret Qualley have lots of sex in ‘The Stars at Noon’. If only they had chemistry.

Even the best directors need good actors. Claire Denis has worked with an informal troupe of returning actors in her films throughout her career, such as Grégoire Colin and Alex Descas, and has also had more star-studded lead actors this century, from Vincent Lindon to Bastards and Isabelle Huppert in white material to Juliette Binoche in Let the sun in. They are performers who have the guts and experience to ground a film, and the acting smarts to work with Denis’ delicate dialogue and elliptical cinematic. Margaret Qualley and Joe Alwyn in the lead The stars at noon like two lovers caught up in a political intrigue in Nicaragua, and it’s sadly a glaring flaw here that they’re unable to carry the film. Both are poorly voiced, both lack chemistry, and neither of them have much fun with the dialogue. It seems from early reactions at Cannes that Joe Alwyn’s reading of the phrase “suck me” is destined to become legendary, but I would suggest that Qualley’s version of the phrase “I like eggs” should be the real cult quip. here.

Qualley plays Trish Johnson, a young journalist who gets stuck in a politically feverish Nicaragua for one reason or another and finds herself unable to earn the money to return; his passport was also confiscated. Here, she resorts to sex work to get by and is already terribly jaded by the time we meet her. One day he happens to bump into Daniel (Alwyn), a sleazy young Englishman on a mission in the country who seems to be a nondescript agent and who is constantly being followed by secret agents. The couple embark on an intoxicating sexual adventure. Trish and Daniel quickly run into trouble – well, not soon enough, considering the film is 2.5 hours long – and are forced to resort to desperate measures to outrun their pursuers.

The stars at noon is two films in one, one of which is particularly unsuccessful and the other not quite so unsuccessful, but still not successful. There’s a prominent love story, featuring a few sex scenes in sweaty Nicaraguan hotels, and the couple slow-dancing in abandoned cocktail bars; and there’s political intrigue, with various mysterious agents popping up and vaguely menacing. This last aspect is not well handled: there is a lack of clarity in Denis’ narration, and the film suffers from not having the kind of ambiguous and ambitious politics of a project like Bastardswhere Denis brilliantly dissects the evils that connect us all.

The stars at noon also doesn’t have enough actors, enough business and life in the background – it’s clearly been affected by COVID regulations – so it doesn’t have the fever to make us believe in the burning peril of the situation. Instead, Alwyn and Qualley run through completely deserted streets and desperately drink rum from various empty shacks, which rather undermines the sense that they’re living on the brink. On top of that, Alwyn and Qualley’s glaring error in the lead roles sinks the idea of ​​the film as a political thriller: these characters should be so much more desperate, cynical, hardened, grizzled, beleaguered, hard to live with – in a word, real. Margaret Qualley barely sweats throughout, looking like a pretty college girl on spring break at all times; Alwyn is a handsome corpse in a jacket.

Margaret Qualley barely sweats throughout, looking like a pretty college girl on spring break at all times; Alwyn is a handsome corpse in a jacket.

The other narrative thread – the heated affair between the two – is rather let down by the fact that Qualwyn has no chemistry at all, none, not one bit, not one iota; but if you can ignore that, Denis’ sultry aesthetic is much more in tune with this dimension of the film, and there’s some fun, frank sex stuff in the script. In particular, an uber-Denis touch comes when we see that the couple had sex while Trish was on her period, as Daniel’s chest is covered in menstrual blood, which she tenderly wicks from her body: it’s good frank sex, with Denis’s sex. habitual eye for color and pragmatic handling of taboos. Another scene – that of the “suck me” – in which the two lovers are covered in water droplets, in the light of neon lights, lying on hotel sheets and drying themselves with radiators, is a beauty. painful. In general, Denis captures these bodies together beautifully, like in a frenzied scene in a bar, to a wonderful Tindersticks song, all in pink light and on an electric blue background: it’s so woozy and radiant, giving a fine sense of passion that should take hold of these characters.

Denis’s dialogue, taken from the book by Denis Johnson, and in collaboration with filmmaker Léa Mysius, sometimes seems quite stiff and unnatural: there is an overriding feeling that the laconic lines and the repartee between the characters should have some Gunpowder by Graham Greene. , but the dialogue here is pretty dumb. In a confusing first scene, Daniel asks Trish if she’s a prostitute or a press, and she replies, “We’re all press,” to which he replies, “So we’re all for sale.” It’s not very funny, but it could be turned into something passable – and these actors make a meal out of it. On another occasion, Daniel observes: “There’s nothing like running away in an old Toyota. What? Actor Danny Ramirez, who plays a menacing Nicaraguan security guard, has a better time, with a nice direct reading of the line: “I don’t like people like you.” I don’t like giving you money,” delivered towards Trish. This kind of flatness serves the film much better than wry/desperate banter, as it serves a largely un-American politics that could do with fleshing out.

The stars at noon is decidedly minor Claire Denis – a film that invites unflattering comparisons with white material and Bastards, and a movie where some things clearly went wrong, or maybe still need polishing. (The edit presented at Cannes was rushed into competition and could presumably be reworked for its general release.) The question of the main actors is crucial, because Denis’ universe, and his style, are so particular that they are deeply translated by less than perfect interpreters. But all is not a disaster here: the sheer style of the film in particular is so inviting and drips with all the sensuality missing from the central couple. The stars at noonfor all its flaws, still offers the chance to see a master stylist at work.

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