Kristen Stewart’s reputation precedes her. Her name tends to prompt three thoughts, often in this order: She is the girl from those terrible vampire movies. The one who was caught on camera kissing a married man. The one who walks the red carpet with a slouch, a smirk and a little stink eye.
Time to erase your preconceptions. For just as Matthew McConaughey’s name no longer conjures images of naked bongo drumming, Stewart is about to undergo a similar image metamorphosis. Before you know it, we’ll all be thinking of her as one of her generation’s most captivating actresses, a star bound for Oscar glory.
No, really! Since wrapping up the “Twilight” franchise in 2012, Stewart has been steering clear of blockbusters in favor of arthouse fare. You may have missed the transformation, but for proof that the young star’s artistry will soon outweigh her tabloid identity, catch the new “Clouds of Sils Maria.” She co-stars with Juliette Binoche, an actress so luminous you almost can’t tear your eyes away from her. And yet Stewart, in all her disheveled chain-smoking glory, manages to command our attention.
Her supporting work in the movie earned her a Cesar award — France’s version of the Oscars — which was a first. No American actress had ever won.
It’s official, then. Kristen Stewart is one to watch. But then, wasn’t she always? She was a standout from the age of 11 in “Panic Room,” opposite Jodie Foster, and she gave a memorable performance in “Still Alice,” for which Julianne Moore won the Academy Award this year.
So what happened in between? “Twilight” made her a star but nearly used her up. The movies made billions of dollars but film snobs laughed at the sexy, sparkly vampires and terrible special effects, and even though a lot of the acting was bad, Stewart seemed to get singled out.
Stewart did her best at first with the terrible dialogue and absurd plot, but by the end of her interminable five-film contract, she seemed to be phoning it in. Michael O’Sullivan had this to say about the final movie, “Breaking Dawn — Part 2”: “As for Stewart and Pattinson, once again he looks perpetually stoned, and she as if she has just detected a bad smell — coming off of her own underarms. Neither one has much range, or makes much of an impression, other than vague malaise.”
It didn’t help that that aloof quality of hers bled through into real life. On the red carpet, she never mugged for the camera. She looked as if she had been strong-armed into attending premieres and doing interviews.
The subsequent Stewart backlash was quite opposite from the Anne Hathaway backlash of the same era. The “Les Miz” star seemed overly desperate to be liked, while Stewart appeared to not care at all what anyone thought. She frowned and squinted, looking more like an annoyed teenager than a movie star on the rise. She just wasn’t that good at playing the game. (Or possibly, she was just genuinely shy.) She had no intention of being America’s sweetheart.
And then, when Stewart was caught on camera cheating on Robert Pattinson by smooching Rupert Sanders, her married director on “Snow White and the Huntsman,” even the Twihards began to abandon her. (Don’t feel too badly for Pattinson. He’s reportedly engaged to the otherworldly, dazzling singer FKA Twigs.)
But Stewart is turning it around one indie flick at a time. Part of what’s so brilliant about “Clouds of Sils Maria” is how Stewart gets to not-so-subtly address her scrutinized existence. She plays Valentine, a personal assistant and friend to the famous actress, Maria Enders (Binoche). Maria is about to embark on a theater project with a younger wild-child actress, Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz), and Valentine — a celebrity gossip aficionado — knows all the details on the starlet’s exploits. Mild spoiler here, but when Valentine accompanies Maria on a meet-and-greet with Jo-Ann, the ingenue is there with a celebrated novelist, who happens to be married. Valentine is over-the-moon, relishing the fact that she’s the first to know about the affair — even before the gossip blogs. Of course, one woman’s giddy discovery is another woman’s tragedy. But “it’s celebrity news. It’s fun,” Val tells Maria.
Stewart supremely enjoyed delivering those lines, according to an interview she did with the New York Times. “The whole industry aspect of it, acknowledging the absurdity of it, I was giddy. I could barely get through the lines without hiding my glee,” she said.
She also winks at her blockbuster past. When Valentine is reading Maria email pitches, they include a commercial for glasses, a horror movie featuring Maria as a mother superior and another in which “there are werewolves involved for whatever reason.”
Stewart gives the line a perfect, wry delivery. She’s getting the last laugh.