Review: Margaret Qualley shines bright in ‘Stars at Noon’

Esteemed French director Claire Denis’ latest film, “Stars at Noon,” was selected for the 60th New York Film Festival and released in theaters on Oct. 14. The film is now playing at select theaters across the city and in the Francesca Beale Theater at Lincoln Center for the festival through Oct. 27.


A still from Claire Denis’s latest film, “Stars at Noon.” (Courtesy of A24)

Olivia Olson, Contributing Writer

Sensory-based director Claire Denis has created a film that produces a humid heat palpable through the screen. Full of passion and peril, Denis’s film “Stars at Noon” presents a romantic thriller that requires a particular taste, as it tends to focus on nuance over narrative. The film, shot in Panama and set in Nicaragua, is adapted from the late Denis Johnson’s 1986 novel of the same name, and takes the source material and shapes it for a modern audience. 

Modifying Johnson’s setting from 1984 during the Nicaraguan Revolution to a pandemic-era present, Denis’ film follows Trish (Margaret Qualley), a tenacious American journalist who finds herself stranded in Central America amid political turmoil. Trish survives in Nicaragua as a sex worker, hoping to accumulate enough money for a passport and plane ticket back to the United States. Despite her efforts to leave, she remains relatively stagnant until she meets Daniel (Joe Alwyn), an enigmatic Englishman who she believes to be her way out of the dire situation. Trish acquaints herself with Daniel only to discover that he is in much more trouble than she is. 

Trish and Daniel find themselves drawn to one another through necessity, which rapidly evolves into a romantic connection. Subsequently faced with further difficulty, the pair keeps each other close and attempts to flee Nicaragua, facing danger and obstacles around every corner. 

“Stars at Noon” is certainly not to everyone’s taste. The plot develops at a slow pace, proving its strengths lie in the cinematography and direction. The film’s dialogue is often succinct — with a few humorous exceptions — and focuses on conveying emotion and sense through nuances rather than storytelling. The same can be said for the decisive camera shots, which favor raw expression. 

Although the delicate camera work and selective dialogue enhance the romance of the story, Qualley and Alwyn lacked chemistry, with the exception of their banter, leaving a question unanswered of whether their romance buds due to dire circumstances or a true connection. Still, there is plenty of passion and emotion packed into this just over two-hour film, as the overall framing plays with the senses in a subtle, yet evocative way. 

Despite the lackluster chemistry between Trish and Daniel, Qualley delivers a brilliant performance as the lead character. She portrays Trish as a playful, captivating and wisecracking character full of wide smiles, despite her desperate measures. Reinforcing herself as a name to be remembered, Qualley’s genuine and personal performance showcases her at her most vulnerable. 

Alwyn, as the stoic, suave Englishman, provides steady support to Qualley’s lead, but he doesn’t particularly stand out on his own. Benny Safdie provides comic relief with his cameo as a CIA man whose appearance in the final quarter of the film is so unexpected, it quantifies as an entirely humorous jump scare. 

The soundtrack of the film, created by the English rock band Tindersticks — a past collaborator of Denis’ — provides ample accompaniment to the overall aura-producing lush, ambient sounds that mirror the sensuous romance the film strives to establish. The title track, “Stars at Noon,” uses steady drums, dreamy synths, low vocals and an expressive horn part to elevate an intimate scene of Trish and Daniel slow-dancing. For the bulk of the film, Tindersticks’s soundtrack provides a relaxed sound to balance out the danger that the plot kindles. 

“Stars at Noon” asserts itself as a romantic thriller meant to be savored with active attention. If you are a patient fan of the aforementioned genre, enjoy Denis’ sensory-based direction, or if you wish to see Qualley’s remarkable acting chops in a central role, “Stars at Noon’ is worth the watch.

Contact Olivia Olson at [email protected].