“The Stars at Noon” finds the French filmmaker Claire Denis shooting in Panama doubling for Nicaragua; directing a cast of Yanks, Brits, and assorted Central Americans; and working from a script switching between Spanish and English. Internationally coproduced Towers of Babel such as this aren’t at all uncommon at the Cannes Film Festival, but the errors in translation all over this disappointing foreign-relations drama run deeper than simple differences of ethnicity or language. Harsh dissonances erupt out of the gaps between cinematographer Éric Gaultier’s spartan camerawork, the conspicuously florid dialogue airlifted from Denis Johnson’s novel, and an inexplicable performance from a criminally miscast Margaret Qualley. A meandering footrace through a politicized purgatory marred by compromise at every phase of its production, it’s a rare misfire from one of our most accomplished living auteurs, excusable only on merit of her past successes.
Johnson’s source text follows a doomed romance blossoming against the backdrop of the Nicaraguan Revolution of 1978-1979, with an American ‘journalist’ — can you still claim that profession if your primary cash flow comes from having sex in exchange for devalued currency rather than writing? — and a handsome yet untrustworthy enigma from the UK dodging Sandinistas as they make a break for the border. Financial constraints precluding period set dressing and costumes compelled Denis as well as cowriters Andrew Litvack (her right-hand man on “High Life”) and Léa Mysius (director of the warmer-received “The Five Devils” here on the Croisette) to shift course to the present juncture of dictator Daniel Ortega’s regime, which manifests more in the appearance of COVID testing and smartphone SIM cards than any updating of its politics. Denis’ career-long preoccupation with global colonialism and her uncomfortable place in it has never been so thin, winnowed down to a tacit acknowledgment of wrongdoing without nuance in the why and how.
Trish Johnson (Qualley) may have come to report on human rights abuses, much to the aggravation of her boss (a Skyped-in John C. Reilly) at the glossy travel mag done footing her bills, but she and the less well-intentioned gringos in her orbit can’t help trampling everything in their path. The locals desperate enough to accept the wads of money she hands out like Baby Ruths on Halloween have a way of turning up dead, their mangled corpses a blunt symbol of imperialist ruination in terms broad enough to apply across a half-century. Avoiding the military officials growing disinterested in her body, she links up with Daniel (Joe Alwyn, Denis’ second choice after Robert Pattinson had to go play Batman), a self-identified emissary of Big Oil who seems to in actuality be in the region-destabilizing business. And business is a-booming, as explained by a Hawaiian-shirted functionary unmistakable as a CIA spook (Benny Safdie). There are no heroes here, only self-interested parties operating at varying levels of exploitation, leaving the country deprived of poultry and Coca-Cola.
The tentative coupling of Trish and the married Daniel is meant to sustain the otherwise repetitive plot, as each tries to suss out who’s using the other for more than constant perspiration-drenched orgasms. But that’s also where the disconnect between Qualley, Denis, and Johnson is at its most glaring. The smoky-seductive exchanges they share, the kind native to hotel bars like the one where they meet decidedly un-cute, sounds all wrong coming from the leaky-eyed, girlish, borderline bratty-voiced Qualley. She spends a goodly portion of the film naked or draining glasses of rum as if to remind us that she’s not the teenager she so plausibly played in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” but there’s no sense of worldliness in her nasal, singsong line deliveries. Though in her defense, she’s fighting some pretty sorry material; she caps off one session of rutting with Daniel by saying he’s so white, it’s “like getting fucked by a cloud.” Later, he’ll request fellatio with the simple command of “suck me.” As my companion suggested, these sour nothings must sound better in French.
There’s nothing in here so spectacularly awful as in Cannes hall-of-shamer “The Last Face,” which previously attempted to meld passion and clumsy third-world-isms to disastrous results. All the same, Denis has set her standard far higher than this, at a profundity of visual expression approached only by a dance interlude bathed in a blue that attains the sensuality on which the preceding scenes fall short. The sensation of feeling trapped that sticks to Trish like yesterday’s dried sweat expands to cover the whole of the film, a pandemic-bespoiled lull from which Denis will hopefully free herself with her next feature. When you’re this good, the weakest entry in your filmography can still be largely inoffensive, far from fiasco territory. Even so, there’s only one person doing it like Claire Denis, and now we must wait even longer to be taken once more to the heights of insight, emotion, and style only she can reach [C+]