Margaret Qualley and Joe Alwyn play a pair of Westerners caught up in a volatile Nicaragua in this laborious psychosexual kinda-thriller from Claire Denis. It feels almost too small an undertaking to count as a major disappointment for the French auteur, but it’s definitely a lesser effort from the filmmaking giant behind White Material and Beau Travail.
Exploring human connection in extreme situations is a Denis hallmark and her two leads find intermittent spark as Trish, a hustling American journalist, and Daniel, the mysterious British oil man who shares drinks with her in his Managua hotel bar. She moonlights as a sex worker to stay afloat in this dangerous world and cover her apparent lack of writing commissions (John C Reilly pops up as her dismissive would-be editor in an amusing scene over Zoom), and he pays for a night with her.
What he does is not entirely clear – although a Costa Rican cop (Danny Ramirez) and a CIA man (Benny Safdie, injecting some much-needed energy) both seem keen to collar him for it. The source novel, American novelist Denis Johnson’s ‘The Stars at Noon’, situates the story during the country’s Sandinista rule of the 1980s. This adaptation plonks it into the middle of the pandemic, erasing any political specificity or context and robbing it of much existential threat. Apart from catching Covid, perhaps.
Instead, Denis zeroes in on the ever-shifting dynamic between the pair. From their purely transactional relationship a romantic bond begins to develop between Trish and Daniel. Soon, it’s muddied by a tearing need for both of them to flee the country, albeit quite slowly. How much of their behaviour is dictated by necessity and how much by feeling is the question you’re invited to ponder. Debts and loyalty, shared goals and betrayal all swirl through a second half that’s much richer in undercurrent than action.
Vaguely redolent of Salvador, only slowed right down to a walking pace, or The Passenger without its seductive sense of place (and Jack Nicholson), The Stars At Noon is a mercurial thing and, as an unsuccessful Denis film, a rare one too.
On PVOD in the UK from Jun 19.