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Kirsten Dunst, Always on the Brink of Transformation

This year, Kirsten Dunst is nominated for her first ever Oscar for her role in Jane Campion's “The Power of the Dog.” She plays Rose, a hardworking but fragile woman yearning for love and understanding. Rose quickly becomes the target for her vindictive brother-in-law, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), who seeks to destroy her psychologically. For Dunst, the role fits into an established tradition of playing women on the brink of total transformation or complete psychological collapse. Just over a decade ago, a delicate and stubborn seed was planted that has fully come to bloom. In 2010, after an almost two-year hiatus, Kirsten Dunst returned to the screen with “All Good Things,” followed by “Melancholia.” Her return marked a transition in her career as she grew into more "adult" roles and became more selective in her choices.

Discussing acting can be elusive. Even the most articulate of performers, who can break down their process clearly and succinctly, only account for the surface of what finds its way to screen. A great performance, particularly by a recognizable movie star, can often feel like a dream, part of a larger image of stardom. When Dunst plays a role, she carries the weight of her previous performances like past lives. As Rachel Syme put it in The New Yorker, her screen persona channels a girlishness and a "conflicted, jumbled femininity." Dunst follows the different threads of possible experiences as if she emerges from a deep sleep for each new role, born and reborn again. 

In some form or another, Dunst has been performing since she was a toddler, first in commercials and later on screen. With the release of “Interview with the Vampire,” playing a woman in her thirties trapped in the body of a ten-year-old girl, she became a child star, which she built into a successful career as a teen idol. She collaborated with Sofia Coppola on “The Virgin Suicides” at just 16. Like her iconic role as a child vampire, she was frozen in eternal youth by the boys who loved and remembered her. They grew older, got married, had children, and she would always stay the same age. 

Maintaining youthfulness can be a heavy burden for young actresses. Dunst, consciously or not, has embraced aging. Unlike some of her peers, she often plays characters close to her actual age.

In “The Beguiled,” her third collaboration with Coppola (not counting her brief cameo in “The Bling Ring”), Dunst plays Edwina, the last standing school teacher in a girl's school in Virginia during the Civil War. Edwina does not yield the authority of the headmistress, and despite her age, she often seems more like a student than a teacher. Her fragility, a pale tenseness, is overshadowed by the power of youth and confidence that surrounds her. We sense a woman diminished to please others. Edwina's uncomfortable way of holding her hands by her waist and the way she looks away when spoken to reflect a woman in the process of self-annihilation. When Miss Farnsworth touches her necklace one morning, seemingly to admire it, Edwina shrinks in humiliation, embarrassed by her vanity. 

Dunst's role as Edwina examines another facet of girlhood rarely discussed: the woman who never had an opportunity to come of age. No longer a teen, she has missed most markers of adulthood, imprisoned in an ivory castle hoping to be saved. The film plays out very much as an ensemble piece. Edwina, though, becomes the scapegoat for everyone else's anxieties; she's beaten down and used by those around her. Even the fateful poisoned mushrooms in the final act can be read as Miss Farnsworth's final punishment against Edwina. The disruptive presence of an enemy man is merely an inciting incident that implodes all the tensions already boiling below the surface. 

In the current part of Dunst's career, she seems to gravitate towards ensemble and supporting roles. It's difficult to imagine how many actors of her standing would take on parts like her brief performance in “Hidden Figures,” where she embodies the push and pull of a woman upholding racist systems to her benefit, expecting the veneer of politeness to protect her. Dunst finds humanity in an unflattering part, without absolving her character. Similarly, in “Midnight Special,” Dunst takes on a small part with significant impact. She plays Sarah, the mother of a young boy with magic powers. Tightly wound and rarely smiling, her character reckons with an "abnormal" child and how her love for him challenges her beliefs. While only in a handful of scenes, her evolution and sacrifice hold the film together. 

Rewatching “Midnight Special,” it's difficult not to see the parallels between that role and Rose from “Power of the Dog.” While the physical differences are stark, both films focus on loneliness and motherhood. Unlike Sarah, however, Rose is given more screen space and depth to evolve throughout the film. Dunst's performance thrives in private moments, her loneliness palpable in how she navigates space, particularly when she moves into the ranch. When Rose first arrives, she tries to help in the kitchen, but it's not long before she is slumped over a table, teetering at the edge of a seat—the attentive and present woman who ran an inn withers under the foot of her brother-in-law, Phil. All Phil has left to do is light the flame, and Rose will go up in smoke like her son's paper flowers.

Rose's femininity becomes one of the major threats against Phil's fragile masculinity. His brutishness, stench, and posturing as an ideal man can't coexist with her womanhood. One of the role's challenges is that she rarely shares the screen with Cumberbatch, while they share the same physical space, they embody completely different universes. Rose becomes sick under the pressure of the expectations of others and Phil's poisonous dislike for her, and her sense of self becomes increasingly fractured. 

It's easy to understand why the role has resonated, particularly under the maddening weight of isolation from the pandemic. Dunst channels a deep sense of disruption and discomfort as she tries to adapt to impossible, claustrophobic conditions. In a later scene, drunk on a chaise longue, she reaches out for her son. She smiles, but her eyes are glazed over. The film opens with her son's prophetic voice-over, "For what kind of man would I be if I did not help my mother? If I did not save her?" and those words seem to echo ominously through this scene. If Peter doesn't act now, she will be lost. 

On the eve of her first Oscar nomination, Dunst's legacy as one of the great actors of her generation feels all but assured. Beyond her work in film, her work in TV with performances in “Fargo” and “On Becoming a God in Central Florida” (she also served as executive producer), has established her as an actor willing to take risks and branch out to new roles and mediums. Rather than becoming something she’s not, she’s worked with what she has: her perfectly imperfect teeth, her “mewling” voice, and her girlish dimples. Her career resists easy categorization; she's always on the brink of internal transformation, taking risks and challenging herself to be the best she can be.

Justine Smith

Justine Smith is a writer based in Montreal, Quebec. In 2015 she was selected as a part of the Locarno Critics Academy and has been pursuing a career in film criticism ever since.

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