This article was previously published in the November 2011 issue of ICON Magazine. It has been republished with permission.
The Upside of Apocalypse
In the new Lars von Trier film Melancholia, Kirsten Dunst plays a deeply depressed bride who welcomes the destruction of the planet. But in Dunst's own world, things have never been better.
By R. Kurt Osenlund
“We celebrated,” Dunst says, her playful laugh and expression making it especially hard to believe that 17 years have passed since she played the youngest March sister in Little Women. “It was the first time we had a chance to celebrate.”
She may not have much time for it, but Dunst – or “Kiki,” to her fans – certainly has cause for celebration these days. In addition to winning her the Best Actress award at this year's Cannes Film Festival, her performance in Melancholia is earning her the greatest praise of her career and putting her on the short list of contenders for this year's lead actress Oscar. In the movie, which makes no bones about its ending (the world is spectacularly, unapologetically obliterated), Dunst plays Justine, a deeply depressed bride who strains to feign happiness at the start of the film, and whose name, one can only assume, is a nod to the Marquis de Sade's doomed and tortured rebel heroine.
Such is perfectly appropriate, considering that von Trier has gained a reputation for casting actresses in roles of near-sadistic turmoil, from Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves to Charlotte Gainsbourg in 2009's Antichrist. In Melancholia, Gainsbourg stars opposite Dunst as Justine's relatively level-headed sister, Claire. The two actresses chatted about their director while doing the rounds at Cannes (where, two years ago, Gainsbourg also picked up a Best Actress prize for serving as von Trier's muse), and Dunst says she initially sought advice from her Spider Man-3 co-star Bryce Dallas Howard, who in 2005 got in front of von Trier's camera for Manderlay. To the certain disappointment of sensationalist rags, the consensus seems to be that working for von Trier is by no means torturous, but rather liberating and, by all evidence, rewarding.
Dunst would know. After more than two successful decades in the business, she certainly doesn't have much reason to complain, but like most American actresses, highs like Spider-Man and Marie Antoinette and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are punctuated by lows like Elizabethtown and The Crow: Salvation and How to Lose Friends and Alienate People. She's right: there just isn't a flood of compelling roles out there. But Melancholia presents a meaty and challenging one, requiring the conviction to handle a mercurial rollercoaster that includes chirpy denial, profound discomfort, debilitating sadness, eerie aloofness, nudity, sex, and grace under the ultimate pressure— impending annihilation.
It's no secret that von Trier has been battling his own depression, and that it's manifested in his work, from the crushingly troublesome mood evoked by Antichrist to the titular destructive planet in Melancholia, which, as it heads inexorably toward our comparatively puny orb, represents Justine's heavy, ever-encroaching blues. Through the course of the movie, which is quite deliberately split in two, Dunst is tasked with convincing you of Justine's emotional shift, from an ill-behaving and nearly catatonic bride (she systematically ruins her wedding before descending into a state in which she can't eat or bathe) to a woman who finds a strange comfort in imminent doom, holding it together while everyone and everything around her falls apart.
“We talked about it, Lars and I,” Dunst says of Justine's curious arc. “We talked about how, sometimes, when people are depressed, the most horrendous things make them kind of step up to take care of everyone more than anyone else. There could be a lot of reasons for it, but it seems that, when you're in a depressed state, having something really bad happen gives you a kind of life again.”
She doesn't speak much about it, but Dunst suffered from a depression of her own in 2008, shortly after the Spider-Man trilogy closed on a sour note and shortly before Hollywood saw the first year-long drought of Dunst releases since 1992. Reportedly claiming to have felt abysmal for roughly six months beforehand, Dunst checked herself into a Utah facility for treatment. Upon completion, she went on to star in All Good Things, a fact-based New York thriller that, prior to Melancholia, earned her “best ever” raves. Call it the Von Trier Syndrome – depression leading to creative awakening. Her experience certainly informed the way she approached Justine, and her full emergence from it, she says, made tackling the role possible.
“Normal,” however, isn't the way anyone is going to describe the experience of Melancholia, an extravagantly visceral titan of a movie that, like most all of von Trier's work, is unshakable to the extent that you might want to clear your post-screening schedule. Regardless of how one feels about the apocalypse (whether you'd greet it with an atheistic calm like Justine, or a terrifyingly frantic desperation like Claire), von Trier uses his singular intuition and formidable visual and aural skills to dig right under the skin, penetrating your surface as he presents the smashing of the Earth's crust.
Dunst proves instrumental in her director's artistic goals, nailing that challenge of embodying an antiheroine whose inner life defies typical development. The true strangeness of it all is that, in discussing the role, Dunst never gets more than a touch serious, maintaining a steady levity that comes as a bit of a shock given the character and material in question. Something suggests that out of the actress's emotional lows has emerged an invigorated, and yet, selectively objective, artist, one who knows when to keep seriousness at arm's length and when to her hurl herself headlong into demanding, provocative work. Which, thankfully, seems to be a new habit.
“Whatever this film would have been – a fun experience, a weird experience, whatever – I was ready to do it,” she says. “I'm up for an adventure.”