I HAVE a dark confession to make.
Although I proclaim to be a cinephile, I have never seen a movie from the immensely popular Twilight series.
As a sports crazed teen I was never tempted to sink my teeth into the romance-driven vampire saga. Despite this, I was aware of the intense fervour that the franchise evoked – both undying fandom and dismissive ridicule.
Notably, it was the negativity – in some cases bordering upon hatred – which stuck with me, particularly surrounding lead actress Kristen Stewart.
On Den of Geek, film critic Ron Hogan wrote: ‘Stewart, who looks like Jodie Foster’s daughter without Jodie Foster’s acting ability, has two facial expressions: confused and angry confused.’ Interestingly, Stewart starred alongside Foster when she was just 11 years old during her often overlooked pre-Twilight career.
Likewise, on a GoodReads thread titled ‘Kristen Stewart can’t act’, which spans two years of riveting discussion, members delight in their collective loathing of the actress. For example, Lucy said: ‘Kristen is either one of the worst actors on the planet, or she has some sort of facial tic and eye condition.’
Let’s fast forward a few years from Twilight to 2014.
I was studying at Western University in Canada. Midway through Canadian Thanksgiving holidays, I trekked three miles in heavy Ontario snow and a face-numbing -35C wind chill to catch a double billing at the Hyland Cinema: Mr Turner and Clouds of Sils Maria.
A coach full of elderly tourists – some British and most void of cinema etiquette – turned Mr Turner into a long, arduous and frustrating experience.
I considered an early return to the warmth and comfort of my university room but luckily I stayed and allowed Stewart to vanish any preconceptions lurking at the back of my head.
She won me over within the first few minutes of Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria by matching Juliette Binoche’s furious energy with her own magnetic presence.
For the next two hours, their characters (Maria and Valentine) tussled over the intricacies of acting in a modern age of sci-fi and superhero flicks. With brilliant subtexts at work, Stewart and Binoche brought the very best out of each other.
Assayas also got in on the layered action by feeding Stewart introspective lines that poked fun at nonsensical online comments and movie werewolves. She delivered them with a knowing grin.
Clouds of Sils Maria showcased Stewart as a thoughtful, nuanced and brave actress. Everything her critics said she wasn’t.
I recently made time to watch – or rewatch – every post-Twilight Stewart film ahead of the release of Personal Shopper. What stood out are the subtle tensions in most of her performances that bring a unique realness to the screen.
She is vulnerable yet defiant. She exudes cool but remains self-conscious. She is introverted and still appealing.
As in Clouds of Sils Maria, all of these aforementioned qualities make for a compelling display in Camp X-Ray (2014).
Stewart plays a solider named Cole who is sent to guard prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. She provides the perfect canvas for director Peter Sattler to paint a complex moral struggle that flies in the face of the single-noted patriotism dulled out by 2014’s hit movie American Sniper.
When Cole begins to sympathise with accused terrorist Ali (Peyman Moaadi) she goes from popular to social recluse – from composed and professional to on-edge and emotional. It all plays out in her increasingly affected facial expressions, the tensing of her posture and the growing desperation in her voice.
Sattler’s camera then begins to capture Cole from Ali’s perspective – inside the prison cell looking out at her. It is a powerful visual truth showing she is now a prisoner of her own internal conflict.
Stewart thrives in these understated roles. But as she pinpointed in an interview with Jonathan Dean in the Sunday Times Culture magazine, these performances don’t translate well across the pond.
She said: ‘In the States, it’s rare for people to get critical attention for things that are so quiet. Sometimes, you don’t show how you’re feeling, and that actually speaks louder than shoving it down someone’s throat.’
Certain Women (2016) is exactly that type of performance. She plays Elizabeth Travis, a young lawyer who travels hundreds of miles to teach a bi-weekly class. While doing this, Elizabeth draws the affections of local ranch hand (Lily Glandstone) and the two share stilted conversation at a local diner.
Mass audiences might deem this film too tedious – perhaps they have a point. But Elizabeth’s silent ambiguities provide some fascinating moments. Even when she is stripped back to cracked lips, tired eyes and drab clothing, Stewart is still electric.
Her most recent work, Personal Shopper, is her finest yet. The 26-year-old reunites with Assayas for a deeply personal psychological study of the invisible. This time the director trusts Stewart to carry the entire film, appearing in almost every frame – often alone.
She repays him with an utterly beguiling performance. One that has led Assayas to point out it is just as much her film as his own. Praise that bodes well for Stewart’s impending foray into directing.
After all of this, Stewart reaffirmed my love for the power of cinema. She has gone from mainstream derision to arthouse admiration. From a messageboard punching bag to one of the best actresses in the world.
On that note, I think it is finally time to watch Twilight and draw my own conclusions.
Maybe I will like it, maybe I won’t. Regardless, it will not define my opinion of Stewart. Just as she has not let it define her.
READ MORE: Personal Shopper Q&A with director Olivier Assayas
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Full Metal Jackett Q&A with producer Jan Harlan
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