So, I think it’s about time to admit that Kristen Stewart has kinda been given the short end of the stick when it comes to judging her abilities as an actress. Best known for her dull and lifeless performance as Twilight’s Bella Swan, a role that no actress would have been able to breathe life into, Stewart has been listed among the likes of Megan Fox and Cameron Diaz as being one of the worst actresses working today. And, quite frankly, when she has good material to work with, she’s not that bad. In fact, she’s pretty decent. This was proved to me by Clouds of Sils Maria, a film about actors being actors, the changes people go through as they become a part of the older generation, and how elders do not have exclusive jurisdiction over insight and wisdom.
Our protagonists are an aging actress named Maria (Juliette Binoche) and her personal assistant Valentine (Stewart). Maria has been asked to perform in a play called Maloja Snake, about an aging business woman who falls in love with her young assistant, either as a desperate attempt to recapture youth or as a strong respect for her protégé’s ambition, depending on one’s interpretation. Maria had played the younger role when the play had first premiered twenty years prior, and now her role is being filled by a nineteen-year-old tabloid sensation and she must step into the shoes of the older character. Thus, Maria grapples with her own changing world view as she rehearses the play with Valentine in a secluded getaway in Sils Maria.
If the parallels between Maria and the character she is about to play are obvious to you, then you’ve pretty much deduced the entire point of the film. Maria and Valentine are real world embodiments of the very characters that Majola Snake portrays, with Valentine presenting a nuanced world view that Maria can’t seem to grasp in her transition from enthusiastic newcomer to more jaded than she would care to admit. And really, doesn’t the casting of a teen pop culture star in the younger role rather mirror Kristen Stewart’s real world claims to fame? This film is rich in text and subtext about the nature of stardom, intergenerational relations, and how aging can warp our self-perceptions.
But this works as a double edged sword for this film, as the symbolism is perhaps a little too blunt for my tastes. Once the realization dawned on me that the purpose of the film was to demonstrate how Maria and Valentine’s relationship mirrored that of the play’s characters, I found that there was nothing left to surprise me, as every plot beat became more predictable and less nuanced. Watching Maria and Valentine shift in and out of character as they rehearse the play was pretty neat, but it stopped being novel after a while, and it didn’t quite carry the same impact as similar scenes in last year’s Birdman.
All in all, though, I found Clouds of Sils Maria to be an enjoyable film. Not only did it convince me that Kristen Stewart is a capable actress, but it got me thinking about my own changing perceptions as I’ve gotten older, and how those perceptions are likely to change as time goes on. It is an entertaining character study that suffers from a mild lack of subtlety. I’d say it’s worth watching.
Do you think Kristen Stewart has what it takes to have a post-Twilight career? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.