The Surprising Arthouse Success of Twilight Stars

By  · Published on April 14th, 2015

After becoming the first American woman to win a César (the French equivalent to an Oscar) for her supporting role in Olivier Assayas’s stunning new film Clouds of Sils Maria, Kristen Stewart said to reporter’s backstage, “The reasons why people make films here in France are very different from the reasons why people make movies in Hollywood, and I prefer it here a little bit.” While promoting Sils Maria at Cannes last May, Stewart stressed that her recent output on indie films ‐ including, lately, On the Road, Camp X-Ray, and Still Alice, and now moving onto a collaboration with one of France’s most internationally celebrated contemporary arthouse names ‐ was not a decisive career move to inaugurate a proverbial “grown up” phase, but rather a response to the material offered. The difference, as the star attested at the Césars, is not Stewart’s taste, management, or self-branding, but rather the types of roles that are made available to her in the first place.

The US release of Sils Maria, one of the best-reviewed films of the year thus far, has inspired numerous appraisals of Stewart that make the case that Assayas’s film taps into the actress’s specific strengths and unique screen persona which have existed, while being mostly ignored, all along. Scott Tobias details a remarkable subtlety of Stewart’s performance executed with a precise distance that is entirely consistent with, not a departure from, her controversially understated role as Bella Swan:

“Stewart doesn’t try to strike back at [Binoche’s] Maria with equal force; that isn’t in her character’s nature, and it isn’t in Stewart’s nature, either. Her work in Clouds Of Sils Maria is exceptionally subtle: no big eruptions, just a gradual whittling away from the intensity of Maria’s dependence.”

And Andrew O’Hehir observes how the film (and Stewart) play with her fame as means of shaping her character while allowing the performance to simultaneously stand on its own: “While Clouds of Sils Maria has many layers and elements, and Stewart’s fame is certainly a part of the puzzle, it never feels remotely like a showcase constructed for her benefit or a complicated pop-culture in-joke.”

Clouds of Sils Maria is certainly a film about fame, performance, and media representation. Its casting is deliberate, not only because Assayas’s screenplay is realized by an exceptional group of performers working at the top of their game (Binoche, Stewart, and Chloë Grace Moretz), but because the film deftly walks a careful tightrope between its triumvirate of characters and the personae inhabiting them. If Juliette Binoche is a, ahem, “world cinema auteur” portraying a movie star of similarly transnational scope in Maria Enders, then Stewart’s Val is Maria’s generational contrast who aligns herself more readily with Moretz’s rebellious tentpole-leading and tabloid-topping Jo-Ann Ellis, a young actress who asserts a fierce independence that elevates even the most seemingly expendable products of the Hollywood assembly line. While Stewart by no means plays against type, her public persona has more tangible overlaps with Ellis than Val, and Assayas uses this meta-connection to enrich the film’s psychosexual generational tensions like a 21st century global cinema update of All About Eve.

Rather than, say, a watershed moment in Stewart’s career, Sils Maria and its detailed play with Stewart’s celebrity image is a window that makes more visible the broader change that is happening in a career geared towards working with prestige directors on non-franchise projects, including upcoming films by Kelly Reichardt (whose deliberate approach to narrative will likely intersect well with Stewart’s reserved demeanor) and Ang Lee.

And Stewart is not the only major Twilight cast member that is witnessing such a distinct, uniform, and ‐ by shortsighted franchise logic ‐ seemingly counterintuitive shift. Since being appropriately cast as a prodigious and alienated playboy in Cosmopolis, David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s sleek, hollow, and apocalyptic vision of a hermetically-sealed oligarchy, Robert Pattinson has consistently worked with celebrated international directors on arthouse and indie projects alike. Although news of his casting in a Cronenberg film was initially framed as a director’s uphill battle against his lead’s second-rate fame, no fuss has been made about his unnerving turn in David Michôd’s brutal The Rover, his second consecutive collaboration with Cronenberg in Maps to the Stars, Werner Herzog’s upcoming Queen of the Desert, and other projects with Anton Corbijn, James Gray, and possibly Harmony Korine.

As if his trajectory didn’t already mirror Stewart’s strongly enough, Pattinson was at one point slated to co-star with Robert De Niro for Olivier Assayas’s next film, Idol’s Eye, until production abruptly shut down shortly before shooting.

However, it’s not as if, through any of these roles, Pattinson has been revealed or discussed as an astounding, long-misunderstood screen performer. He’s simply a capable actor, and either through seeking out certain directors or having directors perceive a certain quality in him (or, let’s be honest, his status as a means of securing financing for non-studio projects and international co-productions), Pattinson has managed to make films for audiences outside of multiplexes and midnight premiere screenings.

But prestige filmmaking has paved a path for the likes of Pattinson before. A significant number of male stars ‐ including, off the top of my head, John Travolta, Adam Sandler, and Matthew McConaughey ‐ have had their careers, fleetingly or enduringly, “saved” by “serious” directors who see the hidden talent and raw authenticity supposedly hiding underneath their disreputable (read: feminized and/or infantilizing) work. Young female actors are rarely afforded the same benefit. Molly Ringwald, Anna Faris, Kate Hudson, and Emma Watson have yet to be cast in career-expanding, edgy roles helmed by renowned auteurs, and they never even received a modicum of the public venom leveled at Stewart.

The fact that Sils Maria has arrived in the US with Stewart’s performance and its recognition overseas in tow as a major tenet of the conversation around it is not insignificant ‐ not because Stewart “needs” this success, but because it potentially offers this heretofore tabloid-attracting, franchise associated actress a type of prestige typically reserved for her male counterparts.

Whatever the limitations of the Twilight series may be, as O’Hehir argues, its backlash “was often tinged with a kind of sexism and snobbery we simply don’t encounter when it comes to libidinal fantasy for teenage boys, such as the Marvel Comics franchises that have become Hollywood’s bread and butter.” As the series’ female lead and as an actress whose understated style motivated detractors to see her celebrity as a blank slate onto which arguments for Twilight’s superficiality could be projected, Stewart was poised to attract more of this dismissal than Pattinson.

Thus, Stewart’s lauded performance in Sils Maria isn’t simply the routine revival of a supposedly ignored talent that forms a familiar, driving component of even anti-Hollywood’s commercial cycle of making the familiar new again. Stewart’s resurgence is a command for self-actualized respect that forges into view not a “hidden talent,” but qualities that were hiding in plain sight all along.

In a global filmmaking context where most contemporary stars are, at some point, defined by their association with a franchise and their embodiment of a multi-film blockbuster character, self-definition and self-assertion is a rare quality to see, especially for a young actress whose career and public image were shaped by a franchise from the outset. No wonder Stewart prefers things in France “a little bit.” And no wonder such tensions between franchise an arthouse film cultures is a central component of the film that’s reshaping how we see her.

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