It's fair to say that Kristen Stewart has been straining mightily to turn over a new leaf in her career, and in some sense, she already has: in the years since she finished her run as the star of the critically-reviled but wildly-popular Twilight series, she's managed to transform into one the critical community's favorite stars.
Look no further than the reviews out of Cannes for Stewart's performance in Olivier Assayas's uncategorizable Personal Shopper, in which the actress stars as Maureen, an American living in Paris who pays the bills by working as an assistant to a demanding French model/actress (Nora von Waldstätten). She also happens to be a psychic medium who is literally and figuratively haunted by the spirit of her late twin brother, who died in the French capital shortly before the events of the movie begin to unfurl.
While several members of the notoriously volatile Cannes booed Personal Shopper following its premiere screening — the film itself has been generally divisive — Stewart has received almost universal praise from critics, something she also enjoyed via her last collaboration with Assayas, the Juliette Binoche-starring Clouds of Sils Maria. Here's a sampling of the plaudits out of the festival:
“Amid all the shifting mirrored surfaces and hazy ambiguities of Olivier Assayas's bewitching, brazenly unconventional ghost story, this much can be said with certainty: Kristen Stewart has become one hell of an actress.” – Guy Lodge, Time Out London
“Stewart is a terrific actress, her brittle exterior barely masking whatever tempest she or her characters are battling underneath…” – Peter Debruge, Variety
“Stewart's performance-which smart money says will be Cannes's Best Actress winner-is such a wholly virtuosic display…” – Sam C. Mac, Slant
“Stewart”s performance is detailed and considered yet shiveringly natural: it might even be the minor-key equal of her César-winning work in Clouds of Sils Maria.” – Robbie Collin, The Telegraph
“Kristen Stewart”s performance is tremendous: she is calm and blank in the self-assured way of someone very competent, smart and young, yet her displays of emotion are very real and touching.” – Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian
“What”s really striking about both of those sequences, other than their ruthless efficacy, is that Stewart holds the screen alone in them. Even when near-mute and given no scene partner, she”s fascinating to watch, and I”ve never seen her this vulnerable onscreen before.” – Kyle Buchanan, Vulture
Sure, there were a couple of naysayers among the bunch (the Village Voice's Bilge Ebiri charged that “Stewart's fidgety, mechanical performance indulges some of her worst acting tics”), but the reviews were overwhelmingly positive, leaving one to wonder whether the former teen idol is destined to all but shed the Twilight baggage that has dogged her ever since she first stepped into Bella Swan's shoes.
If nothing else, Stewart is certainly doing all the right things. Since the first Twilight gave her the financial freedom to take on riskier parts, she's lent her talents to a striking number of small independent films, from Adventureland to The Runaways to On the Road to the Guantanamo Bay drama Camp X-Ray –– all of which have brought her general acclaim even when the films themselves fell short.
And yet it bears mentioning that Stewart was never exactly loathed by critics. Even in the midst of the Twilight franchise, she was routinely pegged as a bright spot among the cast, and indeed, her reputation for being a “bad actress” seems more a creation of the online mob than the critical community itself. Still, for her to grow into a star on the magnitude of a Streep or a Blanchett (or even, to cite a contemporary, Jennifer Lawrence), her talents as a dramatic actor will need to be hitched to a film that is both beloved by critics and popular with the public. For all the kudos she's received from the press, she has yet to merge her artistic aspirations with a film that people actually see.
Judging from Stewart's brewing releases, there is some potential for that, though the most promising near-future candidate for both popular and critical success — Drake Doremus's sci-fi romance Equals — has thus far not received the kind of buy-in from critics that made a film like Alex Garland's thematically-similar Ex Machina a surprise hit (not to mention an awards-season contender). Then again, she does have the Ang Lee-directed war drama Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk on the horizon — and if that film shapes up to be as strong as the attachments indicate it will be, there's some potential, particularly with its November 16 release date, for Stewart to rack up some end-of-year accolades and perhaps a whole new level of esteem. That would get her within striking distance of the careers of those acting giants she so clearly aspires to emulate.