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Review: 'Clouds of Sils Maria' shows Kristen Stewart can act (really!)

This is not a joke: Kristen Stewart won an acting prize that isn't voted upon by teenaged Twihards. A real, honest-to-gosh grown-up acting award.

Contrary to possibly unpopular opinion Stewart earned it, for her meta portrayal in Clouds of Sils Maria, an English language but oh, so French, Swiss and German indie. Stewart was named best supporting actress at the Cesars, France's version of the Academy Awards.

Hey, it's a start. For those viewers who've watched Stewart's recent progression in offbeat films like Camp X-Ray and Still Alice — when she held her own opposite Academy Award winner Julianne Moore — it shouldn't be a surprise. Clouds of Sils Maria matches Stewart with another Oscar honoree, Juliette Binoche, with equally impressive results.

Binoche is typically wonderful as Maria Enders, a former stage actor now slumming in Hollywood schlock. Stewart plays her personal assistant Valentine, whose patience is tested daily by Maria's mood swings. She's as aware of Maria's fading relevance as the diva herself. An intriguing role is offered, a revival of the lesbian-themed stage play that made Maria a star as a teenager. Now she would play the elder woman, with tabloid ingenue Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz) as the younger.

Clouds of Sils Maria is written and directed by Olivier Assayas as a sly ribbing of celebrity neurotica, with Maria gradually recognizing too much of herself in the play — written by a dearly departed friend — and her teenage shrew co-star. Valentine is the droll fulcrum in their teetering, tottering relationship, running lines with Maria that often sound like conversations these characters should be having. It's a fine performance with one spot-on scene that likely grabbed Cesar voters' attention.

In the scene, Valentine is explaining Jo-Ann's tabloid persona to Maria who isn't pop culture savvy, and can't understand why grabbing attention for paparazzi rows and sexual peccadillos makes her a star. Valentine speaks up for the younger actor, sounding like she's defending her own lapses in judgement; an affair with her married Snow White and the Huntsman director, and certain role choices. Yet doing so confidently, not making excuses but stating a case for being left alone to sink or sail.

More than ever before, it appears Stewart will do the latter.

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

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