She’s still big; it’s the pictures that are getting smaller. Kristen Stewart, who became one of the most recognizable humans in the world for playing Bella Swan, the tender, tremulous teenage vampire-lover in the massively successful Twilight franchise, has lately been showing off her talents in a string of more modest productions. In the almost four years since the fifth and final installment of the Twilight saga was released, the actress has scrupulously avoided blockbusters, instead headlining and taking supporting roles in auteurist films made on either side of the Atlantic. Her range post-Bella was demonstrated last month at Cannes, where two disparate projects premiered within days of each other: Woody Allen’s 1930s-set Café Society, in which she plays a bobby-socked movie studio secretary caught in a love triangle, and Olivier Assayas’s resolutely of-this-moment Personal Shopper, a shape-shifting ghost story that features the actress in nearly every frame.
They are just two Stewart films scheduled for release this year: Café Society opens July 15, the same day as Drake Doremus’s sci-fi romance Equals; Personal Shopper bows in theaters later in 2016, along with Kelly Reichardt’s ensemble drama Certain Women. Even those who (critics and civilian moviegoers alike) dismissed the actress’s work in the bloodsucker juggernaut would have to be impressed by this latest career efflorescence. For those of us who were immediately taken with her portrayal of Bella — as I was on a miserable Saturday afternoon in late November 2008 at a Chelsea multiplex, where I saw the inaugural Twilight movie — Stewart’s recent roles confirm what’s been evident all along: that she is one of her generation’s most quicksilver performers. Crucially, this electrifying mutability is rooted in her genius at communicating, both onscreen and off-, a sexuality that is itself ever-changing: from extremely heteronormative to explicitly sapphic and all libidinal leanings in between.
Stewart’s gifts were apparent several years before Twilight‘s first gleaming. Born in 1990 in Los Angeles to parents who work behind the scenes in the entertainment industry — her father is a stage manager, her mother a script supervisor and producer — Stewart had her breakthrough role in David Fincher’s Panic Room (2002), released shortly before her twelfth birthday. In this Upper West Side home invasion thriller, she plays Sarah, a scooter-riding, Sid Vicious–adoring tomboy and the only child of Jodie Foster’s Meg, recently divorced from a 1 percenter husband. Stewart’s resemblance to Foster is uncanny: Not only does she have the same wide, light-colored eyes and heart-shaped face as her elder, but Stewart is also a dead ringer for Foster during the mid-Seventies height of her kid-performer years (the era of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Taxi Driver, etc.). The pre-teen toughie Stewart so confidently portrays in Panic Room isn’t entirely invulnerable — she’s diabetic. But, no matter how low her blood sugar, Sarah still has the smarts to use one of her insulin syringes to attack the worst of the guys who’ve been terrorizing her and her ma. Stewart’s mien and mettle in Fincher’s movie recall Foster’s from three decades earlier — a soft-butch atavism that’s the first of many queer signifiers in Stewart’s career, more on which in a moment.
Among her fourteen other ante-Bella features, Into the Wild (2007), directed by Sean Penn, best showcases the skill that the actress would repeatedly demonstrate in the Twilight pentalogy: a superb understanding of how to remind viewers of all ages of the chaotic churn of adolescent emotion and desire. In only a handful of scenes in Penn’s movie, Stewart — as Tracy Tatro, a peewee Joni Mitchell living in a trailer park in dusty Imperial Valley, California — slinks with burgeoning sexual confidence. “That poor girl is about ready to vault herself onto a fence post,” one character says while Tracy stares hungrily at the twentysomething adventurer played by Emile Hirsch. Splayed provocatively on her bed in a white tee and panties, the sixteen-year-old boldly invites him to join her.
Undeniably, Tracy enjoys a carnal freedom that Bella doesn’t in the Twilight films, which, despite their floridly supernatural elements, push a retrograde purity-ring philosophy. Still, the depths of uncontainable yearning Stewart conveys in these movies (at least the first four) is all the more impressive considering the lesser skills of her co-stars Robert Pattinson, as the pallid vampire she weds and procreates with, and Taylor Lautner, the teen wolf Bella loves…like a brother.
The Twilight franchise’s advancement of a conservative agenda of one (undead) man, one woman might have been boosted by the fact that Stewart and Pattinson were dating for much of the series’ 2008–12 run. But throughout these years, the actress, refusing to be pigeonholed, signed up for projects that complicated the swoony, boy-crazy, high-femme virgin character that was bringing in box office billions. As Joan Jett in The Runaways (2010), Floria Sigismondi’s lush recounting of the rise and fall of the jailbait Seventies rock group, Stewart no longer slinks — she swaggers, strutting not for guys but for girls. She plays the teenage guitarist like a heat-seeking missile, one aimed at Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning), the bandmate she’s besotted with. Bathed in cherry-bomb-red light, these two share a sultry kiss, the lip-lock initiated by Jett. Stewart’s brilliant baby-dyke bravado in The Runaways, her unabashed lustfulness, reveals an appetite that Twilight tamped down (if not outright forbade). Since that franchise concluded, her characters’ desires, sometimes unconventional, have often been expressed in more oblique, though no less stirring, ways.
“Dare I kiss you?” big-shot Hollywood talent agent Phil Stern (Steve Carell) asks his employee and mistress, the felicitously named Veronica “Vonnie” Sibyl (Stewart), in Allen’s Café Society. “Dare you not?” is her reply, Stewart’s intoxicating delivery suggesting both raw need and cool self-assurance.
The film may be another of Allen’s creaky nostalgia vehicles, but once again, Stewart’s incandescence cannot be dimmed by inferior material. She quite literally glows when we first see her character: Vonnie is enhaloed by sunlight after stepping into Phil’s office, where she is introduced to her boss’s nephew, New York transplant Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg, in his third film with Stewart), who will soon become her boyfriend. Stewart’s steno-pool sophisticate is the luminous orb around which these men revolve, and the sole source of fire in the film. Who else, by the sheer power of sexual magnetism, could make Eisenberg’s twitchy worrywart character, a clear stand-in for Allen, seem like a viable love interest? “I can’t imagine what it would be like to be larger than life,” Bobby tells his beloved after they take in a Joan Crawford movie. “I think I’d be happier being life-sized,” Vonnie says, a response made all the richer by the fact that it’s spoken by an actress who regularly appeared on IMAX screens not long ago.
But the filmmaker with whom Stewart has most ingeniously refracted — queered, in other words — her real-life career is Olivier Assayas. In Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), the first of her two collaborations to date with the Paris-based auteur, she plays Valentine, the bespectacled personal assistant to Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), an internationally renowned forty-year-old star of stage and screen. There’s a perverse thrill in watching Stewart, long an A-lister, so astutely inhabit the role of helpmate. Though deferential, Valentine doesn’t hesitate to challenge Maria, delivering an eloquent defense of blockbusters to her employer when she slams industrial cinema — the very kind of moviemaking that made Stewart a star.
Despite being boss and underling, Maria and Valentine have a relationship that is constantly in flux, the lines between the personal and the professional often blurred. That’s especially the case when the two move into a secluded house in Sils Maria, a village in the Swiss Alps, where Maria begins to prepare for a particularly fraught stage revival. Their psychic enmeshment deepens during the weeks that Valentine runs lines with her employer, erotic suspense rising from Stewart’s intricately calibrated push-pull with her co-star, a battle of wills mixed with affection in which top/bottom, sub/dom are positions that are never quite fixed. While their intimacy never extends to the physical, one scene strongly hints at the possibility before fading to black.
There’s even less stability in Assayas’s forthcoming Personal Shopper, an outré yet unexpectedly touching tale of luxury brands and ectoplasm. Here, Stewart’s character, Maureen, in the title profession, is demoted to an even lowlier celebrity adjutant. A studiously disheveled American temporarily in Paris (one whose sartorial style matches Stewart’s boho-butch rags in several paparazzi shots over the past few years), Maureen hopes to make contact with her recently deceased twin brother, who possessed the same paranormal gifts she has. When not receiving signals from the dead, she dashes from one high-end shop to the next for the fashion-fascist boss she says she despises, Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten). But does she really? Dropping off some Cartier at Kyra’s empty luxe dwelling, the assistant tries on one of her employer’s haute-couture frocks (not unlike the ones Stewart has been modeling in a recent Chanel print campaign). This charged, forbidden act is made even more lubricious when Maureen begins to masturbate in Kyra’s bed. The actress loses herself in the scene’s lurid hall of mirrors, succumbing to the irony of playing a character who gets turned on by pretending to be, however briefly, someone she’s not — that is, by acting. The frisson is multiplied as we watch Stewart — who, in real life, must always be on guard against stalkers and other predators — portray someone who thrills at violating the rules and sanctum of her V.I.P. boss.
The smallest role Stewart has in a film in this annus mirabilis is the most evocative. In Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, which the writer-director adapted from short stories in Maile Meloy’s 2009 collection Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, she plays fledgling Montana lawyer Beth Travis in one of the movie’s three main vignettes. Anxious about her student loans, Beth has taken a part-time job teaching an adult education evening class on law — a twice-a-week gig that’s an eight-hour round-trip commute. Bedecked in ill-fitting cotton/poly-blend cardigans and skirts, Stewart’s attorney exudes crippling self-doubt. But one student — ranch hand Jamie (Lily Gladstone) — is immediately smitten with her new teacher, suggesting they go to a diner afterward simply so she can sit across from Beth and hang on her every word. Significantly, Reichardt has switched the genders of the crushed-out pupil; in Meloy’s book, the enamored cowpoke is a man named Chet.
Is this reversal a sly acknowledgment of Stewart’s own strange avowal/disavowal of her recently reported same-sex relationships? In the September 2015 issue of Nylon, the actress said, “If you feel like you really want to define yourself, and you have the ability to articulate those parameters and that in itself defines you, then do it. But I am an actress, man. I live in the fucking ambiguity of this life and I love it. I don’t feel like it would be true for me to be like, ‘I’m coming out!’ No, I do a job. Until I decide that I’m starting a foundation or that I have some perspective or opinion that other people should be receiving…I don’t. I’m just a kid making movies.” Her response may be evasive, yet it does nothing to diminish her incontrovertible allure on screen. She’s not a kid (she turned 26 in April), but she is still making movies — a dizzying assortment of them, each one further proof of her fearlessness and infinite talent, and each unleashing all kinds of fantasies from spectators of all genders and sexualities. All ways is the only way we want it.
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