2022 | rated R | starring Margaret Qualley, Joe Alwyn | directed by Claire Denis | 2h 15m |

Trish (Margaret Qualley, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) is a would-be freelance American Journalist for a travel publication who gets trapped in Nicaragua by the Covid-19 pandemic. Reduced to dead-end leads and prostitution to keep the bills paid at her hotel, Trish starts to fall for one of her British clients, Daniel (Joe Alwyn) and is drawn into his web as the he is followed by the CIA.

Somewhere in the last two decades, with the easy access of internet porn and the rise of comic book movies, mainstream film became entirely sexless. With autists on the internet claiming that anyone wanting to see something that explores adult relationships in their films should just “go watch porn” there has become a massive gulf in adult oriented entertainment at the movies – ie. nothing between comic book films for man children and flat-out porn. Fortunately, nobody told that to French auteur Claire Denis, who follows up her sci-fi film High Life, that centered around an orgazmatron, with an erotic travel film powered by it’s two game leads.  Stars at Noon is day-in-the-life cinema, short on plot and long in the tooth, the movie is immersive with it’s setting and getting into the heads of it’s flawed characters in a way that I appreciate where young Charlie would have grown restless. It’s an adult movie in the truest sense that it is geared toward adults, our attention span and our desire to explore other cultures.

Again, the story is lose and leisurely unfolded. Its with little laughs or thrills and we never really think our heroes are in any actual danger, but this film does a handful of things I really appreciate. The first is it’s Covid setting, like this year’s Glass Onion, Stars incorporates that it was filmed during Covid into the story set during the time period. It represents most people’s experience with Covid, as a far off nuisance that occasionally involved putting on a mask in a taxi or to get into a hotel, taking a test or seeing a 6 Ft/2 meters sign slapped up obligatorily on a wall, however nobody in the film is ill or threatened by the virus. It feels organic to the story without feeling rushed.

That said, there is also an unintentionally funny cameo from John C. Reilly (playing Trish’s freelance magazine editor) on a zoom call from his house, looking like his frazzle-haired internet scientist Dr. Steve Brule.

The next, and actually most important thing is how immersive the film feels as a travelogue.  Shot just south in Panama doubling for Nicaragua, Stars provides an escape to South America in all of it’s charms and hardship. Trish and Daniel navigate a city where they barely speak the language. Their journeys matter less as an engine for a plot and more of a showcase for the city as we follow them through rain soaked streets and into sweaty, hot hotels.

Where the film feels like a classic for another era is in the meaty erotica of it’s love story. To the extent that a sex scene is in film these days it’s usually a Harvey Weinstein era sequence where a woman stares at the ceiling while a guy treats her like an object. Stars opens with such a scene before delivering the contrast later, several romps between Trish and Daniel (that may involve body doubles, but who knows) that illuminate how rarely we see such a thing – two people who actually like each other. Their characters are fueled with passion and playfulness, a bit 9 1/2 Weeks, a bit like that wild sex scene from Don’t Look Now. 

I’m of two minds about this. From a strictly scriptwriting standpoint, a good movie should constantly be moving the plot forward. Every minute, every line of dialog serving that goal toward maximum efficiency and to that end there really is no reason to include a sex scene in a movie as it doesn’t advance the plot (with the exception of a movie about infidelity). And yet we have all sorts of extraneous and indulgent things in movies that don’t exactly advance the plot. Sex scenes are like car chases, they don’t need to be there, but there is an art to crating a good one. In a world devoid of such passion Stars at Noon brings back that art.

Both leads to a terrific job with the frizzy-haired Qualley showing indie acting chops match her deliberate choices in projects. Audiences looking for this to come together neatly will be disappointed, but those familiar with Claire Denis’ work and the mood pieces she creates will be at home with this latest offering.