A union between two genres, the romantic thriller bewitches and ensnares with mysterious intrigue and an alluring style. To name a few personal favorites: Tom Ford’s 2016 “Nocturnal Animals,” Richard Marquand’s 1985 “Jagged Edge” and Peter Weir’s 1985 “Witness” (bravo, ’85). “Nocturnal Animals” horrifies with a high fashion, psychological nightmare of betrayal, heartbreak and vengeance. Powerhouse Glenn Close (“Fatal Attraction”) drives classic crime suspense in “Jagged Edge,” and “Witness” makes hearts tighten and swoon with high-stakes tension and slow-burning romance. When done right, a film in this genre performs an impressive balancing act between suspense, beguiling romance and thrilling danger. The same can’t be said for “Stars at Noon.”
Set in present-day Nicaragua, the film stars Margaret Qualley (“Maid”) as Trish, an American journalist stranded without a passport or American dollars, and Joe Alwyn (“Conversations with Friends”) as Daniel, a married, English businessman who finds himself the target of Costa Rican and American authorities. What begins as a steamy affair between Trish and Daniel ends up resembling love, and they embark on a journey to flee the country as federal agents close in on them.
“Stars at Noon” was adapted from Denis Johnson’s 1984 book “The Stars at Noon” by accomplished French director Claire Denis (“High Life”), best known for her sensual approach to cinema. Her sensitive style transfers well to “Stars at Noon.” The handheld camera, a mere onlooker, often watches Trish walk leisurely through the streets of Nicaragua and gazes at unfiltered scenes of nature and local life.
For the greater part of this film, little happens. When not following Trish as she wanders in search of a way home, most scenes are devoted to the burning romance between Trish and Daniel. This wouldn’t be an issue if it were telling a simplified, slice-of-life story — plenty of masterful movies use plot sparingly. Take Sofia Coppola’s 2003 “Lost in Translation” or nearly any Wong Kar-wai film, where crafting mood and feelings of melancholy and longing take precedence over creating an enticing plot. But in a thriller, pacing is everything. Because of how sedate the first roughly 70 minutes of this film are, the sense of urgency and danger packed into the last act feels dissonant. Perhaps this film belongs in the slow cinema genre, but even so, it lacks the aching realism to rely on atmosphere and dialogue alone.
Along with an offbeat screenplay, “Stars at Noon” suffers from general vagueness and an unconvincing story. For example, the first conflict occurs when doubt is cast on Trish’s status as an American press correspondent. The audience is made to wonder whether she is who she says she is, as the film certainly alludes to her having something to hide. In a surprising cameo by John C. Reilly (“Licorice Pizza”), she is fired by her boss via Zoom, who reveals she was barely employed to begin with. It seems inconceivable that anyone would move to a foreign country for a temp job, which further calls into question her being there. Mystery quickly turns to confusion as her true motives are never addressed again.
While the extended, dreamlike exposition is the strongest aspect of this film, it is undercut and abruptly interrupted by the rushed effort to incorporate action and danger. For blurrily explained reasons, the authorities are in hot pursuit of Daniel. Instead of removing herself from a dangerous situation, Trish chooses to become a fugitive herself. Just as such a keen political interest in a young businessman is far-fetched, it is unbelievable that Trish would risk her own freedom for a married man. Incoherency issues plague “Stars at Noon,” a common trap among book-to-movie adaptations.
Despite the story’s weaknesses, Qualley’s performance as Trish is formidable. Not a stranger to a leading role, Qualley starred in and received critical acclaim for Netflix’s 2021 “Maid,” which, like “Stars at Noon,” draws breath primarily from Qualley’s talents. In “Stars at Noon,” she brings an unwavering commitment to her role as a chaotic, clever and defenseless young journalist. Opposite her, Alwyn’s performance could be seen as understated to a fault, but his reserved portrayal of Daniel matches his character’s enigmatic and reticent personality.
Despite strong performances, the chemistry between Qualley and Alwyn is strained, which might have gone unnoticed if not for one wordless, moving scene. Trish wanders into a backroom, empty of people beside a DJ and filled with ambient jazz. Visibly affected by the music, she stands meditatively before Daniel joins her. Bathed in purple light, they embrace and sway together. Soon they are clinging to each other, their fear, desperation and vulnerability laid bare. In the absence of this moment, their other scenes together might not have paled so much in comparison. Still, their respective and joint performances are some of the redeeming qualities of this film.
While “Stars at Noon” is a visual dream carried by strong performances by both Qualley and Alwyn, it meanders and fumbles to find purpose and direction.
Daily Arts Writer Maya Ruder can be reached at email@example.com.