A heavy tropical raincloud of sensual languor and political intrigue looms over this interesting if sometimes uncertainly acted movie from director Claire Denis – and incidentally, casting Benny Safdie in a small role is to risk everyone else getting upstaged, and so it proves here.
This film touches on her keynote themes of sexuality and colonialism, in its 21st-century manifestation, though maybe the romantic passion and duplicity don’t come across as strongly as they might have done with leads who had a stronger chemistry.
Denis has co-adapted the 1986 novel by Denis Johnson, originally set in Nicaragua during the Sandinista revolution of the early 80s but here updated to the Covid period, the pandemic evidently fulfilling the “life-during-wartime” background function, although this is necessarily far less dramatic and explicit and Denis substitutes the eerie emptiness of the streets as a kind of military curfew. It is certainly more intimate than a film like The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), often more resembling an erotic hotel-room chamber piece.
Margaret Qualley plays Trish, who has come to the capital, Managua, as a freelance journalist but infuriates her sometime editor back in the US (a nice Zoom cameo for John C Reilly) by being utterly useless and unreliable. She is unable to get any lifestyle/travel articles off the ground and a rash political piece criticising corruption has earned her the loathing of the authorities. Now she is reduced to hanging around luxury hotel bars, selling sex for US dollars. She is also having a sordid affair with a local cop (Nick Romano) in return for her continued press corps privileges and with an ageing government official who has offered help.
Trish meets a mysterious, handsome Englishman in the bar one evening. Daniel (Joe Alwyn) claims to be in the energy business and engages her services for the evening. Trish later sees Daniel in the company of a certain local who has told Daniel he needs his professional help. But Trish – wily and streetsmart in ways that Daniel isn’t – tells Daniel this man is clearly a Costa Rican cop working for a government agency making common cause with the CIA against what Uncle Sam sees as an unhelpful nation state. Soon, this man is after Daniel’s head. Daniel, too, is not what he seems and as their danger increases, Trish and Daniel embark on a passionate affair.
It is reasonably acted, although the cool, enigmatic sophistication required of Alwyn brings him worryingly close to Roger Moore territory. Qualley nicely conveys neediness, alcoholism and self-reproach although her performance, like Alwyn’s, sometimes feels a bit callow. They are outclassed by Safdie as the mysterious US expat who befriends Trisha.
What works better is the ambient mood of torpor, cynicism and bad faith in the insupportable heat – all shrewdly conjured by Denis.
• Stars at Noon screened at the Cannes film festival and is released on 19 June in the UK on digital platforms.