Best Actress of the Decade, Entry No. 26: Kirsten Dunst

To celebrate the last decade 2010-2019 we are counting down the best actresses and discussing some of their most notable and memorable performances of the last decade. With the help of Film Twitter, the ITOL team have selected 30 actresses. Entry No. 26 is Kirsten Dunst, and writer Bee Garner discusses her favourite performance by Dunst over the last decade.

Kirsten Dunst was a major icon for me growing up, she starred in several of my favourite films from my childhood; films such as “Little Women” (1994), “Jumanji” (1995) and “Small Soldiers” (1998). In her very first major role she wowed our socks off with her performance of the child vampire Claudia in “Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles” (1994), in fact she proved to be more memorable in the role than the leading actors, Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt.

As Dunst approached the early 2000s we saw her take on far more dramatic roles in films such as Sofia Coppola‘s “The Virgin Suicides” (1999) and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004). Still, during the early 2000s you were more than likely to find Dunst appearing in light-hearted teen-comedies such as “Dick” (1999), “Bring It On” (2000), “Get Over It” (2001) or being every guy’s manic pixie dream girl in “Elizabethtown” (2005). Or if those weren’t your kind of films, you could find her being rescued by Tobey Maguire in Sam Rami‘s Spider-Man trilogy (2002, 2004 and 2007).  Dunst was the girl next door, the quirky love interest who did silly spontaneous things. Everyone like Kirsten Dunst but she was never really seen as a ‘serious actor’.

And then along came Lars Von Trier‘s “Melancholia” and Dunst proved that she was no longer just that “girl next door”.

Regardless of your opinion on Von Trier, there’s no denying how magnificent Dunst’s performance is. She plays the role of Justine, and we join her on what should be the happiest day of her life- her wedding to Alexander Skarsgård‘s Michael. However, Dunst is struggling with her depression which has reached to the point where she is no longer concerned about the impending doom from Melancholia, a rogue blue planet that is hurtling towards the Earth.

mel weddding
Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia (2011) © 2011 – Magnolia Pictures

As the wedding night unfolds, Dunst slowly descends into a state of mania and flees the reception in a golf cart, and tearing her dress as a result. There’s this sense that Justine is barely struggling to contain her rage, as everyone around her seems too concerned with their own issues. Even her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) urges her to hide her depression from her new husband. Justine feels isolated and ignored, and we feel her inner anguish through Dunst’s portrayal. As the night comes to a close, she resigns from her job, cheats on her husband and then they mutually decide to get their marriage annulled.

“The earth is evil. We don’t need to grieve for it.”

Justine (Kirsten Dunst), Melancholia (2011)

Justine is placed in the care of Claire and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) as her depression worsens, coinciding with Melancholia making closer contact with Earth. Justine reaches a point where she’s almost catatonic and Claire is unable to help her, even to assist her into the bath. Food tastes like ash in Justine’s mouth, and she becomes angry with her beloved horse, brutally whipping him when he refuses to go across a bridge. As the prospect of the end of the world becomes more imminent, Justine seems strangely calm and unfazed by it all while Claire becomes more panicked.

Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg in Melancholia (2011) © 2011 – Magnolia Pictures

Von Trier came up with the film’s concept when a therapist told him that depressive people tend to act more calmly than others under heavy pressure, because they already expect bad things to happen. “Melancholia” should be a very depressing film, but somehow both Von Trier and Dunst manages to make the film deeply cathartic. In Dunst’s own words, “‘Not many movies can portray depression. Watching depressed people is not interesting. They are tired, they don’t want to take a shower. They don’t want to sleep or eat. Lars took something that’s not very easily done in cinema and made it interesting.”

“I smile, and I smile, and I smile.”

Justine (Kirsten Dunst), Melancholia (2011)

Those who have suffered from depression may have experienced extreme mood swings and depressive episodes and Dunst captures the unpredictability of bipolar and hypomania. Dunst herself has suffered with depression, and she never overplays her character’s condition and mental well-being, instead she provides us with an authentic and nuanced performance that feels personal to her.

mel kri
Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia (2011) © 2011 – Magnolia Pictures

It’s clear that she is drawing on her own experience with battling with depression. Dunst has stated that she couldn’t have done the film if she had still been in a depressive state, and she was actually quite happy during the process of filming, in an interview she stated, “It’s not something I think I could have done if I wasn’t happy. It was very intense.” It’s clear that “Melancholia” was like therapy for the actress and she deserves to be included in this list of great actresses of the decade.

Do you believe that Kirsten Dunst’s best performance of the decade is “Melancholia”? Let us know in the comments below.


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