Kristen Stewart plays a personal assistant in Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria, which just had its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. It feels like one of the least movie star-like roles an actor could possibly take on, as it involves being in close proximity to the person who’s getting all the attention — a famous actress named Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) — without commanding any of it.
Of course, Stewart is a big star herself, well acquainted with the issues of paparazzi, tabloid scandals, and press coverage that complicate life for her character’s employer — which is why it’s so interesting to listen to her break the unspoken rules of celebrity in the film and discuss its mechanics like any other industry member and fan.
As Valentine — who accompanies Maria to the Swiss Alps, first for a memorial and later, to help her prepare for a stage role — Stewart drives, manages schedules, and fidgets with a pair of phones while wearing jeans and glasses, as her boss takes the stage in Chanel and takes meetings with directors dying to work with her. There’s a striking difference in the way Valentine carries herself versus Maria — she’s not uncomfortable in her own body, but she acts very believably like someone who’s used to being part of the scene, though not being noticed.
It might just be the most interesting part Stewart, who’s often seemed uneasy with the demands of her Twilight Saga fame, has ever played. It’s definitely the most self-reflexive, given how Clouds of Sils Maria is a story about Hollywood versus “serious cinema,” experience versus newness, and how much or little an actor’s personal image can be separated from his or her work. Of the three archetypal women the film presents — Maria, the venerable but aging icon; Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), the fiery, tabloid-loved up-and-comer; and Valentine, the outsider — it’s the last perspective that most aligns with the audience.
Maria gets cast in a revival of the play that made her famous, only this time, she’s playing the role of the older woman instead of the ingenue. She struggles to get into the head of the character who gets seduced and discarded rather than the one who has the power. And Valentine’s put in the uncomfortable position of trying to argue on behalf of the part Maria can’t bring herself to accept, in essence having to tell her boss that it’s not so bad to be older and to not be the lead.
While Binoche plays into Maria’s incandescent charm, moodiness, insecurities, and ego, Stewart brings her most down-to-earth and restless qualities to Valentine, who becomes increasingly uncomfortable being boosted from an errand-running assistant to expectations of being an artistically literate colleague. Valentine reads the tabloids and likes blockbusters, and in one of several sharply relevant sequences (hello, X-Men: Days of Future Past), she and Maria go to see Jo-Ann’s latest effort (in 3D) and then argue over whether it’s possible for something as removed as mutant angst to be a reflection of real emotion.
Interestingly, Clouds of Sils Maria, which will get a U.S. theatrical release from IFC Films, is a lightweight movie. Its concerns dissolve like mist as the credits roll, but its treatment of art and commerciality is incisive and never easy. It falls on the side of the importance of artistic ambition as much as you’d expect of a French drama, but allows for the appeal and power of entertainment (though all we see of Jo-Ann’s hit movie is made to look ridiculous).
More importantly, it doesn’t dismiss the young, even when Jo-Ann proves as capable of blithe cruelty as the character she’s playing. Maria was a young asshole once too, one who enjoyed the freedom of not knowing any better and of being able to give herself to a character without asking tough questions. As it winds its way from Switzerland to the London stage, Clouds of Sils Maria doesn’t lose sight of that power, even as it focuses on a character whose years of experience and fame guide (and sometimes get in) her way.