23 Nov 2022

At The Movies - Stars at Noon

From At The Movies, 7:30 pm on 23 November 2022

French auteur Claire Denis won the Grand Prix at Cannes for this romantic thriller set in Africa.

Originally, Stars at Noon was set in Nicaragua during the Sandinista era. Denis has updated it to the rather less commonly known present day. Though she makes no effort to clarify the - admittedly pretty tortuous - current political scene.

Who's running Nicaragua at this time? What's the role of neighbours Costa Rica - particularly the Costa Rican police?

No matter. The story starts out pure Graham Greene. There's a man in a shabby white suit drinking alone at a bar. An American woman strikes up a conversation with him.

She claims to be a journalist, though she's clearly plying a rather older trade at the moment.

Of course, Graham Greene would probably have told this story from the point of view of the Man in the White Suit. He's a businessman called Daniel, incidentally, played by the dashing Joe Alwyn.

Director Claire Denis however is far more interested in free spirit Trish - played by Margaret Qualley.

Trish picked up Daniel in the bar, she tells him, mainly because his hotel had better air conditioning than hers. But one thing leads to a sharing of some confidences.

However Nicaragua is a dangerous country not to know much about.

Daniel is obviously an innocent abroad - he's only been here a couple of days, and doesn't even realise that many of the people he's hanging out with are people you don't want to hang out with.

Trish decides to take him under her wing, running the risk of offending her previous clientele.

But is Daniel quite the innocent he seems? Why is he really here? And why does a mere businessman need a handgun in his luggage?

Wheels within wheels, in other words. It doesn't take long to realise that the authorities are keeping a more than usually close eye on one, or both, of them.

And not just local authorities. That breezy American tourist who strikes up a conversation with Trish may as well have the letters "CIA" printed on his T-shirt.

In thrillers like Stars at Noon, the point is generally the characters and the situation, not the politics. They're either looking for something or running away from something.

But at least they're generally given some sort of clear motive. Without really knowing what drives Daniel or Trish, I found it hard to care one way or the other.

Aside from the vagueness of the goodies and baddies situation, I became irritated at the pace of Stars at Noon - or rather, the lack of it.

The first hour is mostly spent admiring the beauty of the two leads as they gradually develop feelings for each other stronger than a shared interest in air conditioning.

But of course that's Claire Denis for you - her films often epitomise the female gaze.

Once the story kicks in - "kicks in" is a relative term, of course - it slowly meanders to an ending that only justifies the term because it stopped, and the theme song kicked in.

Stars at Noon undoubtedly looks good - it is Claire Denis after all - but it's too long, too slow and too unclear to rival any of its illustrious predecessors.

Denis has many skills, but straight thriller directing isn't one of them.

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