Whether she was starring in terrible vampire movies, sleeping with her Snow White director, pouting on the red carpet or just generally looking uncomfortable, Kristen Stewart has never had trouble giving the media and the public reasons to pick on her. To be frank, it was hard to find a reason to like her.
But if you kept a close eye on her performances alone and blocked out all the nonsense, she was effectively proving herself as an actress. She perfectly embodied indecisive teen angst opposite Jesse Eisenberg in Adventureland, was solid as Joan Jett in The Runaways, and offered sturdy support to Julianne Moore in Still Alice. Most triumphantly, she recently became the first American actress to win a Cesar Award (the French Oscars), honored for her supporting work in Clouds of Sils Maria.
In Sils Maria, Stewart plays Valentine, the personal assistant to successful actress Maria (Juliette Binoche). Valentine is not a showy role full of histrionics, but it does require layered depth and screen presence. As the film opens on a symbolically bumpy train ride, Valentine and Maria are on their way to an awards reception that Maria is decidedly unenthusiastic about attending. Her big career break that launched her to stardom came when she was 18 years old and played Sigrid in a play (and later a movie) called Maloja Snake, named for the low-lying clouds that “snake” their way through the Maloja Pass in the Swiss Alps. In Maloja Snake, Sigrid tormented 40-year-old Helena, who was in love with Sigrid.
The offer comes: Klaus, a theater director (Lars Eidinger), wants Maria to return to the play, but this time as Helena. Young Hollywood starlet Jo-Ann (Chloë Grace-Moretz) has been given the role of Sigrid. Maria waffles but ultimately accepts, then travels to the town of Sils Maria near the Maloja Pass in Switzerland to rehearse. The intention is to get close to the material but, in reality, Maria has trouble seeing the content from Helena’s perspective.
This is where Valentine moves to the forefront, as she explains an alternate perspective on the play that Maria isn’t able to absorb. Maria and Valentine have a playful dynamic: They care and look out for one another, eat and drink together and discuss their personal feelings. But when they disagree, the tension is palpable, as personal/professional lines are blurred. Valentine is smart and she knows it, and respects Maria, but not to the point that she’ll be a “yes” woman to whatever Maria says. It’s these moments of tension when the film is most alive — we don’t know who’s right or wrong. It doesn’t matter, though. We still enjoy watching Stewart and Binoche play off one another so effectively.
Writer/director Oliver Assayas (Irma Vep) is consciously merging the content of the play (as Valentine and Maria rehearse) with the characters’ real lives, to the point that, in some conversations, it’s nearly impossible to tell what’s the scripted play and what’s true conversation. For example, we can’t help but wonder if, just as Helena develops a crush on Sigrid, Maria now has a crush on Valentine. And so you have to listen closely to the dialog, think, engage with the characters and trust those involved that the payoff will be worth it.
Even if things are left unclear, and a better sense of the play itself is needed in order to fully appreciate the Valentine/Maria dynamic, the payoff is worth it.
It’s ironic to hear Stewart’s Valentine describe Jo-Ann’s troublesome tendencies — it sounds like celebrity news gossip at its worst. Here’s hoping Stewart has successfully left scandal behind her and will continue to take on challenging roles such as these, as she clearly has the talent for a long, long career. Just like Maria.