There's a lot to like in Stars at Noon, a steamy romantic drama set in Nicaragua from French director Claire Denis. Despite operating with a plot that is often ultra-vague, Denis has still managed to stitch together a pleasing tale stacked with sex and political intrigue, all placed against a backdrop of a crumbling Central American country where the internet is patchy but machine guns are everywhere.
The film follows Trish (Margaret Qualley), a young American freelance journalist who is out of money, favours and luck. Trish's editor refuses to help her anymore and her previous reporting exposing human rights abuses in Nicaragua hasn't endeared her to local authorities either. Trish had been sleeping with a cop and a government minister but with elections imminent, both men are forced to cut her loose: the cop revokes her press card and the minister refuses to vouch for her any longer.
In her present bind Trish drinks heavily and remains in denial about her situation. Stepping into her world now is Daniel (Joe Alwyn), an Englishman with shady pretences for being in the country. He says he works for an oil company exploring charitable operations, but the handgun in his bathroom bag suggests otherwise. Trish and Daniel hook up in a hotel bar and Trish demands fifty American dollars in exchange for sex.
The next day Trish spies Daniel in the hotel restaurant with a man she believes to be a Costa Rican police officer (the Costa Ricans being the enemy of the Nicaraguan regime). When challenged, Daniel pleads ignorance and says the man just wanted some help. Trish isn't buying it and leads the cop on a slow-speed chase around the city in a thunderstorm to demonstrate to Daniel that the cop won't go away. So Daniel and Trish try to figure out what's going on (when they're not having sweaty sex). Inseparable and eventually in considerable danger, the couple decides to flee to the Costa Rican border.
There's an awful lot unsaid in Stars at Noon and we're left to fill in the blanks plot-wise ourselves. And what we're left with is election meddling, CIA involvement and government corruption. But all of this just seems to float around in the background of the romance between Trish and Daniel. This is largely okay thanks to an excellent performance by Qualley, who commandeers most scenes and keeps everything on track. Joe Alwyn's Daniel is a little less convincing, his reticence is meant to convey mysteriousness, but often he comes across as a bit of a blank space. And any chemistry between the lovers seems only ever held together by Qualley's presence.
The film's languid pace and the plot's many ambiguities might put some off, but there's still enough to enjoy. An excellent, jazz-laden score is the perfect match for the tropical downpours and humid interiors. The lush cinematography also conveys the exotic locales in a pleasing manner. And there are commanding flourishes - a scene where Trish and Daniel dance in a neon-lit bar is one to get lost in and rates among the film's most memorable. It's not perfect by any measure, but for sophisticated tropical escapism Stars at Noon works fine.