I hope this year wasn’t a fluke: more filmmakers should follow the lead of Lena Dunham, Ti West, and Claire Denis. Perhaps none of them intended it, but all three had new feature films screening in Baltimore this year within months of each other. Only West shot his films, X and its far superior prequel Pearl, back-to-back, but both Dunham and Denis first offered small films, Sharp Stick and Both Sides of the Blade, about love and sex at the dawn of the pandemic; and followed them with larger, more ambitious works. Dunham completed her decade-long effort to adapt the children’s book Catherine Called Birdy, and did so splendidly with the brilliant Bella Ramsey in the lead. Leaving Los Angeles for the English countryside, Dunham allowed her return to feature filmmaking, Sharp Stick, to be seen as the minor, warm-up work of a filmmaker already preoccupied with a more important project. Denis’ new film, Stars at Noon, is unfortunately just as unfocused and wearying as Both Sides of the Blade, which I find more endearing than back in July. Stars at Noon is an overlong, inert film with plenty of elements for a better one.
Denis is working in familiar territory—a European traveling and eventually getting trapped in a poor foreign country—and with actors like Margaret Qualley, Joe Alwyn, and Benny Safdie (John C. Reilly’s brief cameo via Skype is one of the only parts of the movie with any life), and a script from a novel by Denis Johnson. Denis is one of three co-writers, all European, and the sparse dialogue is stilted even more than usual for this situation. Qualley, Alwyn, and Safdie all act like spies and assassins, even though only some of them are; all of them talk in comic-book bubbles, to such an extreme degree that it approaches something like the cadence of robots, an aesthetic decision that, if successfully followed through, could make for an interesting film: the various players in an international crime syndicate, including journalists, real estate developers, land speculators, and contract killers, would walk like machines and stand like mannequins, all while speaking only in pronouncements and paragraphs culled from dime store police and science fiction novels. Philip K. Dick is a brilliant writer, but his prose can be pretty bad, but perhaps it could be applied to the cinema for a greater effect.
Stars at Noon is ostensibly about a journalist played by Qualley stranded in Nicaragua. Past the point of abandoning her assignment—John C. Reilly is tired of paying for her depressing “political pieces” and wants more easy travelogue fare—Qualley can’t get out of the country, stymied by bureaucracy, authoritarian menace, and lack of cash. She meets Alwyn’s character, an Englishmen with a gun, not a laptop, and they start sleeping together while hiding out and trying to find a way to escape the country alive. Late in the film, Benny Safdie appears a nominal contractor, but as soon as you see and hear him lounging in an abandoned cafe eating a “delicious breakfast” of eggs and beans all while complaining about how rude and dirty everyone in Nicaragua is to him; you know he’s a G-man, or an outlaw assassin, equally dangerous. Here, Denis has the fundamentals of one of cinema’s oldest and most dependable genre formulas: the spy film. Qualley isn’t exactly a detective, but she’s our guide, featured in nearly every scene, and the film remains as much a mystery to her as to the audience throughout.
While she and Alwyn do begin a sexual relationship, it never struck me as romantic, but my friend Leigh Ann identified the “love story” as the heart of the film, however bored she was with the movie, too. This never occurred to me: Stars at Noon is a world away from the luminous and inspiring paint box visions of 2002’s Friday Night, or even the golden sterility of 2017’s Let the Sunshine In, which I still maintain functions best as a form of French Curb Your Enthusiasm, where Juliette Binoche goes through a series of Larry David-esque social misadventures and acts accordingly; all of her potential romantic partners turn out to be flops pretty fast, and even the movie undermines her plight by including, at the last minute, an otherwise unrelated scene of a woman of a similar age tearfully confiding in a character played by Gerard Depardieu in a car. He’s her therapist, and her lover; he’s telling her it’s over, she’s not taking it well. After a brief scene, she isn’t seen or heard from again, and Depardieu goes inside to meet with another client: Binoche. Their session is banal and patronizing, a stream of cliches and condescension that make it clear that Depardieu is phoning it in at work, and that Binoche isn’t getting it at all. In a final gesture of meta-mockery, Denis starts running the end credits in the middle of the scene, without any cues or placement beyond their intentional obscuring of what would be an important, maybe even climactic, scene in another movie. Here, Binoche’s profound personal problems, Depardieu’s cynical detachment, and the filmmaker’s effacing of both of them not only with the material but with the formal elements of the film itself remain the highlight, for me, of Denis’ recent work.
Everything since 2018’s uneven and undercooked High Life has been a disappointment—and by that I mean the two films she’s released this year. Both Sides of the Blade and Stars at Noon came and went at the Charles Theater here in Baltimore, and they similarly didn’t stick around nationally or abroad, with Denis’ appearance at Cannes, only months after premiering Both Sides of the Blade at the Berlinale, gaining little notice or writing beyond the perfunctory. Despite turning 76 this year, she remains a working artist, and has vigorously promoted both of these films all year, including a recent appearance at the New York Film Festival. Another friend of mine saw the North American premiere of Stars at Noon there, and he was overwhelmed: “every shot was beautiful, surprising, languid, morphing into something immediately brutal or passionate or terrifying.”
I wish I found as much life in Stars at Noon as he did, because as sparse as the film is, there’s a way to make this work. It’s very simple, and Denis has done it before, with her 2009 film The Intruder: more music. Denis scores are usually great, but like so many European directors, she doesn’t use them enough, overcompensating for Hollywood and other American directors who ladle strings on everything to tell the audience how to feel at all times. Her work with Tindersticks isn’t featured enough in the films their music is ostensibly scored for, but in The Intruder, a delayed, two-note electric guitar phrase is repeated throughout the two-hour-plus film, and that keeps it alive more than anything else. Michel Subor is just as distant and unknowable as Qualley, Alwyn, and Safdie are here, but the movie’s hypnotic because of his mood, and mostly its repetitive and eerie theme.
Stars at Noon has nothing like that, to the point that I misread the film as the kind of international spy/crime film she’s done before with The Intruder or 2013’s Bastards, but Leigh Ann corrected me, pointing out the love story I missed completely, the one featured on the fucking poster. There’s no warmth here, let alone love, and any lust is dissipated by the glacial pace of the movie.
Again, you can make a gripping film about anything—a Belgian housewife, a dinner between friends, someone sitting in front of a truck—and it all depends on how you tell it. Cinema isn’t about stories, it’s about how stories are told. The way a movie tells itself determines in large part how an audience sees and receives it, as Jean-Luc Godard said in 1980. Denis employed a widescreen, handheld cinematography in both of her 2022 films, along with the kind of rapid cutting within scenes that reminded me of David O. Russell more than anyone, but I can only stand his shoot-a-mountain-of-film-and-find-it-in-the-editing-room approach successful at times because he’s almost always working with numerous volatile characters in cramped and hectic situations. His camera and cutting style correspond to his stories and his characters, and it makes sense, just as it wouldn’t make sense (although it certainly would be interesting) to film Spider-Man fighting the Green Goblin in an unbroken wide shot over the skyline of Manhattan. Both Sides of the Blade may be nominally more minor in nature, but it’s the more substantial, developed film, despite its irritating and self-effacing aesthetics. Stars at Noon is a bloated failure, a film I feel indifferent to, a terrible feeling, especially for a filmmaker like Denis. Fortunately, she’s prolific and diverse—I hope she uses a tripod next time.
—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @nickotissmith