Margaret Qualley and Joe Alwyn get into sweaty trouble in Stars at Noon

Claire Denis’ Stars at Noon sees two of Hollywood’s hottest young things end up in each other’s arms, and a whole lot of trouble, in Nicaragua. Katie Parker is impressed by the film’s stunning and sensual photography, claustrophobic atmosphere, and raw, uninhibited performances – less so, the lack of action outside the bedroom.

Based on the cult 1986 Dennis Johnson novel of the same name, Stars at Noon sees beloved French filmmaker Claire Denis update the book’s Nicaraguan setting to a modern one—and plonk two of Hollywood’s hottest young things right in the centre of it.

The first of these is Margaret Qualley as Trish, a young sometime journalist stranded in Nicaragua after some apparent unpleasantness with local officials. Moonlighting as a sex worker for cash and spending the rest of her time roaming around getting wasted on hastily gulped-down cups of rum, she’s brash, wild and a bit of a hot mess.

The second is Mr. Taylor Swift himself, Joe Alwyn (though, notably, Robert Pattinson was originally cast in the role), as Daniel, a mysterious, married British oil businessman who Trish solicits on one of her prowls at his upmarket Hotel. Quickly, however, their professional relationship turns personal—and before long they are spending what seems to be days rubbing their bodies slowly and intimately together in the viscerally sticky Nicaraguan heat.

But life can’t be all sticky rubbing, and Trish’s situation somehow worsens when Daniel runs afoul of his would-be business partners. Suddenly he’s a wanted fugitive, her only allies in Nicaragua have turned against her just for hanging out with him, and the pair have gone on the run, as unsure as we are if either can really trust the other.

With stunning, sensual photography, a heady, claustrophobic, strangely sour atmosphere and raw, uninhibited performances from its (nevertheless slightly miscast) leads, Denis’ film is a mood piece rather than a thriller—whatever the trailer may have led some to believe. In this, she succeeds with the ease and aplomb you would expect: Daniel and Trish’s love affair is tinged with melancholy and dread, their scenes of intimacy imbued with a sense of great unease. Themes of colonisation and belonging, which Denis has visited before, are rendered fraught and tragic in this context, as the pair are all but forcibly rejected by their humid, foreign surroundings.

Yet there is also a plot—and however much we all enjoy mood pieces, at 2 hours and 15 minutes the total opaqueness of what is really going on does, at times, test one’s patience.

When Trish first meets Daniel, his vague explanation of his line of work has her quip: “please, don’t go into detail”. He obliges, and so does Denis. Unlike the novel, which took place during the Nicaraguan revolution, here the political situation is left deliberately vague—and though there are COVID masks to tell us that this is very much the present, there is an otherwise timeless quality to the proceedings. Whatever is going on with Daniel, and why his business with the Nicaraguans goes sour, is as hazy and mysterious as Trish’s own recent past—one which has left her without a passport and at the mercy of corrupt local authorities.

By the time the pair are on the run, with Benny Safdie in hot pursuit, any sense of what is really at stake has evaporated as Trish and Daniel make sweaty, frantic, eye-contact-heavy love in one damp, dirty little hotel room after another.

As a result, Stars at Noon can’t quite convince us to care about what happens to either lover—and though it is clear there won’t be a happily-ever-after, the gradual derailment of their affair is so slow and hard to parse that the film lacks pace or even a climax (unless you count a not especially thrilling document-signing scene), puttering out as it finally reaches its conclusion.

Denis’ second English language film after 2018’s slightly more crowd-pleasing High Life, Stars at Noon’s thick atmosphere and lush, languid photography will give the chin-scratchy crowd plenty to enjoy and proves that the iconic auteur is still a master of her craft. Anyone after a bit more action outside of the bedroom, however, might be best to steer clear.