Given the combustible subject matter and the director’s reputation, French auteur Claire Denis has made a remarkably listless and unpersuasive film in Stars at Noon. Set during the Nicaraguan Sandanista revolution circa 1984, this adaptation of Denis Johnson’s novel published two years later centers on a couple of Americans of dubious character who misspend time in Central America before finally deciding it’s time to split when, in fact, it might be too late. This is the sort of misfire that, just because it comes from a hallowed French auteur, sometimes gets programmed in the Cannes competition even when it manifestly doesn’t deserve to be there.
The best scenes, even though they’re a bit confusing, come at the beginning, as saucy young American alleged journalist Trish (Margaret Qualley) has it off with a local politico with whom she has some sort of tit-for-tat arrangement. Trish is more than a tad dissolute and appears to have little going for her other than her looks; she’s never actually seen pursuing a story or writing anything. At this point, she uses her allure for influence and money and could scarcely be more blunt about it.
The next man in her sights is a Brit named Daniel (Joe Alwyn), a rather too-good-looking-to-be-true young man who immediately goes to the head of the line in Trish’s boudoir. Also a supposed journalist, Daniel may have other fish to fry but spends so much time with Trish that it’s unclear what else he’s supposed to be doing there at a time of great local uncertainty.
Johnson, Denis and screenwriters Lea Mysius and Andrew Litvack are treading knee-deep in Graham Greene territory here, not only due to the array of shadowy characters but with the uncertainty of alliances and the examination of romantic entanglements that sprout from such intense circumstances. But despite Trish’s bluntly straightforward nature — she charges $50 for a session — and engagingly frank attitude, there’s not enough character development or engagement with the issues, both personal and geopolitical, to satisfy a viewer with a genuine interest in what’s going on in this very specific time and place.
The film studiously avoids politics, and anyone too young to remember the period — nearly 40 years ago — won’t have much of a clue as to who the players are, other than, perhaps, for a pretty obvious CIA agent posing as a businessman. Bennie Safdie, of the filmmaking Safdie Brothers, plays this role to increasingly fine effect as the yarn stumbles along with a cast that needed much stronger representation on the male side. Alwyn clearly needed much more guidance than he got, as he basically seems lost in crucial role that, as it stands, has no definition.
For her part, Qualley is pretty engaging in the early going, as her promiscuous character very bluntly uses sex as the principal determiner in her life. But even this gets old after a bit, and the film is so thoroughly lacking in political context, psychological nuances, investigation of local conditions and simple suspense that the whole thing just collapses from the lack of any sturdy dramatic fortifications.
It’s most certainly an opportunity lost.