Kristen Stewart hasn’t always been rich in critical defenders. It was clear from as far back as 2007’s “The Messengers,” an otherwise forgettable horror movie in which she played a teenage girl haunted by ghosts her parents cannot see, that she had something special to offer. But for a long while, it was constrained within movies that were, well, not so special — “The Yellow Handkerchief,” “Jumper” — or relegated to parts so small, like her guitar-playing baby Earth mama in “Into the Wild,” that they failed to make a impression on all but attentive observers. (That’s not counting her legions of fans, of course, who being largely, or at least most vocally, young and female tend to inflame critical biases rather than calm them.)
Weighing heavily against those fine, sometimes elusive moments was the lumbering “Twilight” series, in which Stewart played the central role of Bella Swan. As a teenage girl in love with a hunky vampire, Stewart was left to feel her way through dreadful dialogue and ludicrous situations, but she persevered, lending the films an emotional weight and realism that they didn’t deserve. Franchises often make stars out of actors with talents no greater than knowing how to stand in their light, but Stewart made “Twilight” watchable even when it shouldn’t have been.
The downside of “Twilight” success is that the underwritten material and indifferent direction exposed Stewart’s weaknesses as an actor, the ones any of her detractors will be happy to rattle off: the mumbling, the darting eyes, the lip-biting. These always struck me less as actorly affectations than as artifacts of genuine emotional exposure, and that was before I experienced the incredible discomfort of watching Stewart awkwardly address a crowd. (People’s top fear should not be speaking in public; it should be watching Kristen Stewart do it.) However mannered it may appear — and movie actors are, above all, responsible for how they appear on screen, not how they feel when they’re on the set — Stewart’s hesitant, herky-jerky persona was the real deal.
Through the years, several movies have been touted as the ones to make critics take Stewart “seriously”: “Welcome to the Rileys,” “On the Road,” “The Runaways” (which also failed to do the same for Dakota Fanning), “Still Alice,” in which she was overshadowed by Julianne Moore’s Oscar-winning performance, and last year’s “Camp X-Ray,” in which Stewart played a guard at Guantanamo Bay. But the one that seems like it might actually stick is Olivier Assayas’ “Clouds of Sils Maria,” in which she plays the assistant to a venerable art-house actress (Juliette Binoche) who is fretting over whether to share the screen with a franchise-spawned starlet (Chloë Grace Moretz). Here’s a sampling of what critics have written since the movie premiered at Cannes last year:
Scott Tobias, The Dissolve: “Assayas and Binoche have collaborated on a role with real-life resonances for a woman who once embodied the vitality and innocence of youth in ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ and ‘The Lovers on the Bridge,’ but has metamorphosed into a different kind of actress. But Stewart is every bit her equal in the tougher, less showy part of an assistant whose competence, insight, and devotion to her boss is often rewarded with neediness and low-level resentment.”
Michael Koresky, Reverse Shot: “It won’t come as a revelation to say that Assayas has better harnessed Stewart’s talents than any director thus far; rather than indulge her natural inclination to fold in on herself (which often reads onscreen as a studied, self-consciously sullen teenagehood), he has found and nurtured a new spark.”
Robbie Collin, Telegraph: “Binoche plays the role with elegance and melancholic wit — her character slips between fiction and fact in a way that recalls her role in Abbas Kiarostami’s ‘Certified Copy,’ although Assayas’s film feels more rigidly constructed; not that that’s necessarily a criticism. But it’s Stewart who really shines here. Valentine is probably her best role to date: she’s sharp and subtle, knowable and then suddenly distant, and a late, surprising twist is handled with a brilliant lightness of touch.”
Jessica Kiang, The Playlist: “We’re as surprised as anyone, but the major acting laurels on this particular occasion go to, wait for it, Kristen Stewart, who for our money delivers the better performance (and the film is mostly a two-hander between her and Binoche) and actually manages to make some of the thankless exposition and clumsy dialogue she’s given sound almost natural. “
Stephanie Zacharek, Village Voice: “As relaxed and proficient a performer as Binoche is, Stewart is better here: She betrays her exasperation with her boss with little more than a slight eye-roll, or an exhausted shrug. With those coded gestures, Stewart shows us that Valentine is eager to get on with becoming something — but before that can happen, she needs to stop being an assistant. Maria never even asks her what she might like to do with her life, probably because she doesn’t want to know: After all, the moment Valentine moves on is the moment Maria loses her forever.”
David Edelstein, New York: “If the juxtaposition of ‘fascinating’ and ‘Kristen Stewart’ stopped you cold, this is the film that should, by rights, warm you up to her. KStew seems unusually comfortable onscreen — ironically by plumbing her own discomfort, using her squirmy, twisty-mouthed, almost fatally thoughtful (for an actress) presence to generate an amazing amount of sympathy. Her American candor turns out to be the perfect foil for Binoche’s lyrical French elusiveness.”
Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter: “Binoche and Stewart seem so natural and life-like that it would be tempting to suggest that they are playing characters very close to themselves. But this would also be denigrating and condescending, as if to suggest that they’re not really acting at all. Their give-and-take and the timing of their exchanges, particularly in the rehearsal sequences, is wonderfully fluid and non-theatrical; Binoche works in a more animated register, which makes Stewart’s habitual low-keyed style, which can border on the monotone, function as effectively underplayed contrast”
Xan Brooks, Guardian: “The relationship here is quite beautifully drawn, with Stewart again demonstrating what a terrific performer she can be away from the shadow of Twilight. She’s sharp and limber; she’s a match for Binoche.”
With loose-fitting t-shirts and shapeless hoodies thrown over her slope-shouldered frame, Stewart’s Valentine looks to be frozen in a perpetual shrug. But “Clouds” spins the star-assistant relationship into something far more rich and complex than the stereotypical mistress and servant. Of course, Valentine looks after Maria (Binoche), running interference with demanding photographers and divorce attorneys. But she also challenges her, providing a no-bullshit contrast to Maria’s fits of emotion and self-doubt. That Stewart plays the grounded half of the pair is how you know that things have changed. The sullen teenager is behind her now, replaced with a young woman who is unknowable, but knows herself.
Stewart’s performance has been duly recognized, including with a César (the French equivalent of the Oscars) for Best Supporting Actress — the first César ever for an American woman. Critics have been largely kind as well, although there’s a tendency in some reviews to evaluate Stewart and Binoche against one another — perhaps inevitable with a film about the competition between actress — or to attribute Stewart’s performance more to Assayas’ direction than the actress herself.
Any actor will tell you that no performance takes place in a vacuum, and Assayas does deserve some of the credit, not just for directing Stewart but for giving her the best material she’s ever had. (Whatever you think of Stewart, her post-“Twilight” career has been a study in turning blockbuster clout towards determinedly artistic ends.) But it’s never been that hard to see traces of Stewart’s talent, and sometimes much more, in her previous roles. Perhaps now that the magnitude of that talent is a matter of public record, we can all go back and look.