Some actors come in for a lot of hate, and often unjustly. Sure, there are the Paul Danos of the world, who are just so off-putting on screen that you just want to reach through and punch them repeatedly until they go away forever and ever and ever — Sorry. I can get carried away when I start thinking about Paul Dano. Far less deserving of that scorn is Kristen Stewart, who has gotten unending flack for her work in the Twilight films. Her former co-star, Robert Pattinson, has moved toward respectability by hooking himself to directors such as David Cronenberg, Werner Herzog, and Anton Corbijn. Kristen Stewart has been trying to do the same, and with her role in Olivier Assayas’ new film, Clouds of Sils Maria, which screened last week at TIFF, she’s proving herself a force to be reckoned with.
Stewart’s breakthrough role came as a young girl in David Fincher’s Panic Room. She’s pretty great in that film, playing Jodie Foster’s tomboyish daughter. She appeared in several films after that, including Zathura. A couple years later Stewart appeared in Sean Penn’s Into the Wild and was basically the best part of that film.
And then Twilight happened.
There is no question that series is terrible — a black hole from which no talent could possibly escape. Kristen Stewart might’ve been a good actress, but you’d never be able to tell. It’s as Harrison Ford once told George Lucas, “You can type this shit, George, but you sure can’t say it!” Stewart’s work in the Twilight films is quite bad even beyond that. It’s clear she’s out of her depths dealing with material so shoddy. She can’t make it work, and she reverts to her regular ticks instead of working to create a compelling character. But can you really blame her? The lone actor who did something resembling good work in that series was Michael Sheen, and even then it was only because he acted like he was in a wacky comedy.
Unfortunately for Stewart, her association with Bella Swan came to define her. She became part of the larger cultural punchline that was The Twilight Saga. This despite turning in a performance the year after the first Twilight that proved her chops. In Adventureland, a generally underrated film, Stewart brings delicacy to a cool exterior. The film is not about her, and yet she’s easily the most compelling character. And she’s incredibly sexy in the film, holding her own with a maturity deliberately lacking in the rest of the characters.
That film was not as successful as it should’ve been, and Stewart’s great work in it was mostly ignored in favour of bashing her for her Twilight work. In the meantime, Stewart tried to find some respectability in films such as Runaways and On the Road, delivering very good performances in both despite the films being quite mediocre. There was also Snow White and the Huntsman, in which Stewart was fine, though very miscast, and despite the film’s box office success, all talk has centered on doing a sequel without her.
Now, with the Twilight series behind her, Stewart is working on smaller projects that will give her a chance to shine. Clouds of Sils Maria is Stewart’s breakthrough. Her performance in the film, opposite Juliette Binoche, is a standout. It’s to the point that the air seems to get sucked out of the film any time she’s not present. If Stewart’s turn in Adventureland was mature and sexy, her work in Clouds of Sils Maria is doubly so. She’s incredibly alluring without ever being objectified, and her chemistry with Binoche is phenomenal. It’s a supporting role in the best sense of the term. She supports the whole film around her, including Binoche, whose great performance owes a lot to Stewart’s smart choices.
In fact, doing the film at all was clearly a smart choice, and not just because it was a chance to work with an acclaimed director. Clouds of Sils Maria is about an aging movie actress forced to work with a popular young starlet with a notorious public image. Stewart plays Binoche’s personal assistant, and her character is opinionated, often defending the idea of working in bad mainstream films, urging Binoche to look through the surface to the quality of the acting choices underneath. She’s talking about the young starlet, played by Chloe Moretz, but she’s also talking in a meta way about herself. It’s a great, self-reflective performance.
Smart choices like those will go a long way to rehabilitating Stewart’s image. And if she’s forever labeled “the girl from Twilight who dated Robert Pattinson,” that’s okay, because those who look harder will see that she’s a smart actress very capable of delivering the goods. Doing better films, working with better directors and better scripts, Kristen Stewart can leave Twilight in the dust. Having seen Clouds of Sils Maria, I’m very excited to see what Stewart does in the future, and I welcome this new era of KStew.
Corey Atad is a staff writer for Pajiba. He lives in Toronto.