Joe Alwyn and Margaret Qualley in “Stars at Noon.” Photo courtesy of Wild Bunch.

“I need to feel like I’m moving.”   

Trish (Margaret Qualley) says this line to Daniel (Joe Alwyn) towards the end of Claire Denis’ enigmatic thriller, “Stars at Noon.” It’s a strange line for their present situation – Trish and Daniel are on the run, steadily making their way to the Nicaraguan and Costa Rican border. But the almost deliberately oppressive pacing of Denis’ film makes Trish’s desire ring true. She may be constantly on the move, but her need to push forward slams up against the lumbering pace of the film, like she’s repeatedly running into a glass door. 

“Stars at Noon” capitalizes on that tension – characters desperate to burst, and a film that refuses to let them. The movie is based on Denis Johnson’s 1986 novel “The Stars at Noon,” set in the thrust of the Nicaraguan Revolution in 1984. Denis updates the setting of the film, moving from the political upheaval of the 1980s to the present-day COVID-19 pandemic. Trish, an American journalist (or so she says), is stranded in Nicaragua with little money and no passport, unable to get out of the country despite her best efforts. She comes across Daniel, an English businessman (or so he says), and seduces him after deciding he is her best chance for escape – until the mystery surrounding his dealings in Nicaragua puts the pair in grave danger. 

The film does not ignore the political landscape of Nicaragua in the present day, but keeps it purposely opaque. As the film goes on, we come to learn that Daniel is caught up in the strained relations between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, but by what measure remains unclear. One of the supposed reasons that Trish’s departure is continuously delayed is the fact that the country’s elections are as well. Outside forces beyond the scope of her control – politics, the pandemic – keep her firmly in place. 

In the same way these forces trap Trish, so does Denis trap Qualley. The film operates in a suspended limbo as Trish squanders her days away with alcohol and any side hustle she can find to make a quick buck. She’s waiting for an election, waiting for an assignment, waiting for anything to kickstart escape into gear. Similarly, Qualley’s performance clashes with the relentless stillness of the film, the suffocating heat and the grinding pace that Denis wields like a weapon. Denis moves deliberately slowly from scene to scene, while Qualley’s physical performance is marked by a tension that can’t abide that looseness. It almost feels like she’s trying to outpace the film, to move on to the next scene before Denis does. “I need to feel like I’m moving,” she says, and as the film grows somehow more languid as the circumstances become more dire, Qualley’s edges grow sharper. 

Those sharp edges interact with Alwyn – more yielding in his approach – in ways that might turn some viewers off. While dressed in the trappings of a standard romantic thriller, this is not your quintessential love story. Denis is not so much interested in the connection between Trish and Daniel as she is the circumstances that produce it and how that shapes their interactions. The relationship between them is not borne out of affection, and Qualley and Alwyn’s stilted chemistry dissuades any notion that it might be. Qualley seems to be a step ahead of Alwyn in almost every scene, and she has the meatier part, one she’s happy to eat up with a wicked grin. Alwyn relents to her energy, putting on an air of self-possession that feels akin to a kid dressing up in their dad’s trench coat. As Daniel, he doesn’t exude confidence so much as he would like you to think he does. Casting is paramount to any film, and no one could feel more fish out of water than Joe Alwyn in Nicaragua. He’s almost eerily pale and gaunt, washed out by the crisp, white suits he wears, drenched in sweat and ruined as soon as he steps outside. There’s an artifice to both Qualley and Alwyn’s performances that hammer home their characters’ lack of real connection. Their relationship is purely transactional, dusted up from paranoia, distrust, and in Trish’s case, that ever-present desire to move. Nothing exists between them without that. 

Trish and Daniel spend the majority of their time together negotiating that transaction, and Denis and cinematographer Éric Gautier are able to highlight the truth of their connection – or lack thereof – through their impeccable ability to capture the stories that two bodies in motion can tell. In the couple’s first sex scene, they grab at each other desparately, the camera pushing in on their bodies and lingering on tangled limbs and red hand marks on skin. It’s not romantic, but it is primal, the camera focused on the act of finding pleasure and how these two bodies fuse together to seek it out. And yet, sex is the only time Trish and Daniel are on the same wavelength. Outside of the bedroom, their movements are sometimes blunt, sometimes hesitant, crossing and circling each other trying to determine the mettle of the other. They way they approach each other has no synergy – when one moves forward, the other moves back, two opposing magnets unable to find their matching poles“I know you haven’t known him for that long, I can tell by your body language,” says a character played by Benny Safdie after just a few moments observing the pair. The awkwardness between the two is apparent to anyone who looks at them, whether that be characters or the audience. There’s dissonance in Trish and Daniel’s desire to play-act at passion in the midst of their hellish state of affairs. 

The performance of romance, of two characters positioning themselves as a sort of Bonnie and Clyde duo against a backdrop that is anything but romantic is what makes “Stars at Noon” so frustratingly beguiling. Longtime Denis collaborator Tindersticks created the score, a sultry jazz melody with a hypnotic quality that further pushes that discord, drawing you into the faux narrative these two have created before abruptly pushing you out. In one of the film’s best scenes, the camera lingers on Trish’s face as she listens to a song in a bar – “Stars at Noon,” written for the film. She is bathed in a purple glow, and light appears to radiate from within instead of shine down on her. Daniel suddenly appears behind her and the two begin to sway to the beat. It’s one of the only truly romantic scenes in the film, fantastical and lush in its lighting and mood, a reprieve from the otherwise blisteringly stoic landscape. 

“I’m sorry,” says Daniel as he breaks away, abruptly ending the moment. The camera pulls back to show the entirety of the bar room for the first time – barren and still. 

Sammie Purcell

Sammie Purcell is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers.