IN the first of two acclaimed performances by Kirsten Dunst at the 64th Cannes Film Festivalin May, a rapt audience watched as a dozen emotions — amusement, stoicism, distress, weariness, embarrassment and rue among them — played across her features in a scene in which she was required to maintain her composure at every moment and express an extraordinary range of feeling with almost no dialogue.
That particular tour de force was a one-time-only live show, the occasion being the news conference at which the depressive, eccentric Danish director Lars von Trier did his level best to torpedo the premiere of his latest film, “Melancholia,” in which Ms. Dunst stars. As he wandered into a tasteless rhetorical cul-de-sac about Nazis, Jews, Israel and his own ancestry, Ms. Dunst, seated next to him, looked on — although “looked on” doesn’t begin to cover what the blog FourFour, which posted an animated grid of her facial expressions, called the “extremely tense, wholly human experience” of “watching her negotiate her reality with what’s happening next to her.”
It’s a tribute to Ms. Dunst that the explosive reaction to the conference, which resulted in Mr. von Trier being declared persona non grata at Cannes, did not overshadow her work in the movie, which a few days later won her the festival’s best actress prize. (The film opens on Nov. 11.) It was a sweet victory for a performer who is still best known as Spider-Man’s girlfriend and whose previous accolades tended to be for things like best “lip lock” at the Teen Choice Awards.
Ms. Dunst, who seems to have been in our movie consciousness for ages but is still just 29, is happy to talk unguardedly about both Cannes performances. In a recent conversation at the Greenwich Hotel in TriBeCa, near her apartment, she giggled, and sighed, and shook her head, and said of the news conference: “My reaction was like a reaction to a friend who’s basically killing himself. I was so upset that he just kept going, trying to get to a place where there’d be a laugh. And I was also very aware that I was in a roomful of journalists, and that I couldn’t say anything, although I think at one point I did whisper to him, ‘Lars, shut up, this is terrible.’ And then I was also thinking ahead, imagining, you know, ‘Party Canceled,’ ‘Dinner Canceled,’ ‘Premiere Canceled.’ ”
At 29, Kirsten Dunst has more than 25 years’ experience. But nothing can quite compare to shooting “Melancholia” with Lars von Trier, the Danish bad-boy auteur who’s almost as well known for eliciting career-best performances from his actresses as he is for igniting controversy.
Dunst stars as Justine, a depressive who notices a new planet, Melancholia, hovering above in the sky on her wedding night. Operatic in execution and flawlessly acted by its exceptional ensemble (Kiefer Sutherland, Charlotte Gainsboug, Alexander Skarsgard, Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt), “Melancholia” is among von Trier’s most accomplished works and by far his most commercial. Shame, then, that his team’s achievements were overshadowed by his infamous Hitler-sympathizing remarks following its world premiere in Cannes. Although the festival shunned von Trier, Cannes still chose to honor Dunst by awarding her with their Best Actress prize.
We caught up with the actress in Toronto, here for the the North American premiere sans von Trier (he doesn’t fly). Bubbly and refreshingly candid, Dunst opened up about working with von Trier, whether she plans to reteam with him and the advice she sought prior to taking on this role.
You’ve had quite the year. How would you characterize it?
I feel like 29’s a good year in general for people. I hope so. 29 has treated me well so far.
I’m guessing Cannes had something to do with that.
I had a good group of people around me in Cannes. We had a lot of fun. Obviously, it was complicated. I didn’t realize what a big deal everything would be. It was surreal. But I went away from Cannes to Istanbul right after and got out of ‘it,’ which was good for me.
It was amazing too, just a lot of feelings. I will never forget that moment. Not the Lars moment.
Winning the award.
Yeah, that moment (laughs). That was the good one. I’m always confused when people ask about Cannes—I’m like, which part?
Yeah, let’s stick mainly to the good that came out of your work with von Trier.
It’s a well known fact that this project was originally conceived for Penelope Cruz.
Yeah. Thank you, Penelope, for not doing this.
Appearing naked in a movie can pose special problems for a performer in the age of the Internet.
“I know that if I do nudity in a film, it’s going to be online all over the place,” said Kirsten Dunst, who appears naked in Melancholia, the sci-fi drama by Danish auteur Lars von Trier.
It is, but Dunst says she felt comfortable with it because it was essential to the plot, expressing her character’s connection with Earth in an intimate way.
“Some films, if it’s inappropriate, or feels cavalier and doesn’t make sense, I don’t like that kind of nudity,” Dunst said.
“I did it, it looks beautiful, it’s a Lars von Trier film, it’s fine. If I was in some comedy and showing my boobs, I’d be bummed. I don’t think you should show your boobs in a comedy, especially if you’re the lead. Boobs aren’t funny.”
There’s plenty of perks to being friends with Sofia Coppola. One of them: having two of the gorgeously understated bags the director designed for Louis Vuitton. “She has the best style,” says Kirsten Dunst of Coppola, with whom she’s worked twice and whose bag — in dark blue — she’s toting around Toronto.
Dunst is here after winning a best actress award in Cannes for her devastating portrayal of a depressed bride in Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia. Perhaps more famously, Von Trier made global headlines after a press conference there in which he made anti-Semitic remarks.
“He apologized. He took us out to dinner the next day,” says Dunst, who considers the director a close friend and the antithesis of how he came off in Cannes. He is, says Dunst, simply someone who made an unfortunate joke, and didn’t know when to stop — an idiosyncratic man who goes for long walks in the woods and drives around in a winnebago.
Her acting prize, she says, means the world to her, capping off more than 20 years of work.
“It’s such a special award. I was so honored and so grateful for it, too. I’ve been working for so long. It’s such a prestigious award,” says Dunst. “I was really lucky that they allowed the film to still be in competition. They have to deliberate about that.”
And she’s comfortable with her level of fame. “To a lot of people, I’m still the girl from Spider-Man. Which is fine,” she says.
Kirsten Dunst received the actress prize at the Cannes Film Festival on Sunday for her performance in Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia.”
The jury, headed by Robert De Niro, clearly opted not to deny “Melancholia” a prize even though the festival had declared von Trier “persona non grata” after the director’s ill-judged jokes about being a Nazi at the “Melancholia” press conference.
While the ban prevented von Trier from attending the ceremony or entering the Palais des Festivals, the pic itself remained eligible for prizes.
“What a week it’s been,” Dunst said upon accepting the prize. “Thank you to the Cannes Film Festival for still allowing our film to be in competition.” She thanked von Trier “for giving me the opportunity to be so brave in this film, and so free.””
In “Melancholia,” Dunst plays a depressed bride whose wedding occurs a few weeks before a planet finds itself on a collision course with the Earth.