2017 Film Essays

My Summer of Kirsten Dunst: Volume 4

The films Kirsten Dunst made after the critical lambasting of Spider-Man 3 have steered her career into a new direction. Gone is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl in favor of characters who are cynical and resentful of their perceived flawless status. Where Dunst cultivated her status as the idealization of male fantasy, her films within the last 10 years take that away and perpetuate her as a woman with tacit knowledge and dominance over her career. The films themselves may not be box office gold, but they opened the door for Dunst to actively take control of her career.

The 2008 comedy How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, the story of an annoying magazine reporter’s (Simon Pegg) attempt to hobnob with the hoi polloi, was the first shot across the bow for Dunst’s career reconfiguring. As magazine staffer Alison Olsen, she takes “the girl” character she popularized and approaches it in a way that deconstructs the fantasy. Peter Straughan’s script presents Alison as a woman who wants to do serious writing, only to be left writing about “ten tips for the…metrosexual” that leaves her wondering “if this is what I really wanted.” The character is meant to evoke images of Shirley MacLaine’s Fran Kubolik from the 1960 film The Apartment, a similar dream woman the male lead (played by Jack Lemmon in that film) realizes is flawed but still enjoys her in spite of that.

Dunst’s Alison isn’t flawless; she’s sleeping with her boss and actively detests everything about Pegg’s Sydney Young. Dunst takes “the girl” and turns hers into a jaded mess. A comic sequence of her being drunk, loudly proclaiming “I’m a whore” isn’t just for the character, but plays like a clarion call against all of Dunst’s previous roles where she was at the mercy of male desire. Pegg’s Young may be the lead, but like all good Dunst films where her raw power dominates the frame, she is the character who grounds the audience. Since Young is so insufferable, it is up to Dunst to act as a relatable audience surrogate. Unlike Dunst’s Claire Colburn of Elizabethtown, Alison doesn’t inspire Sydney to change; she’s the one convincing the audience to deal with him (and like him) because she likes him.

Though How to Lose Friends and Alienate People wasn’t a success, it spurred Dunst to throw aside being liked. Her adult, post-franchise roles feature women characters uninterested in being darlings, rebellious women who had been jaded by their beauty and past successes.

Dunst’s role as Katie Marks in the 2010 crime drama All Good Things represents a career highlight, a role she equated to Jodie Foster’s performance in The Accused. Based on the disappearance (and presumable murder) of Kathie Durst by her husband Robert, Dunst’s Katie is down to earth, but not otherworldly, and desired by her husband (played by Ryan Gosling) but not God’s gift to men. Dunst’s performance is quieter than her previous roles, as Katie assesses the man she married. Her mounting dread is on a level with Catherine Deneuve’s in Repulsion.

In a move similar to How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, All Good Things is Katie’s story more than her husband’s. Dunst’s Katie has big dreams of being a doctor and struggles to maintain a happy facade in the wake of domestic violence. All Good Things could be what happens to Mona Lisa Smile’s Betty Warren, with its supposedly happy housewife putting up a false front to hide her sadness and torment. But in this case, Dunst’s character’s fate is all the more tragic: not only does the case remain unsolved but Dunst’s performance was overshadowed by Gosling’s name prestige. Even worse, the film suffered massive setbacks and changes, causing a severely delayed and truncated release, leaving one of Dunst’s finest hours mired in obscurity.

As Dunst’s films became increasingly niche and underseen, her choices became more esoteric, and no movie of hers is more cerebral than 2011’s Melancholia. Director Lars von Trier’s second film in his “Trilogy of Depression” follows Dunst as Justine, a woman suffering from mental illness while a large planet, known as Melancholia, threatens to destroy Earth. Dunst starred in the film after being treated for depression, and it acts as the ultimate critique of the roles that led her to this point. Justine signifies every beautiful, happy character Dunst had portrayed, but she can’t maintain it any longer. Characters never ask why she’s unhappy, simply demanding that she smile and endure. Justine would do well to talk to Betty Warren, who asked in Mona Lisa Smile if the eponymous Leonardo da Vinci muse was happy. “She looks happy, so what does it matter?”

Justine’s growing depression and inability to fake happiness is parallel to the arrival of the new planet. Just as Melancholia brings change with destruction, the film destroyed Dunst’s image as a perpetually happy party girl in favor of a serious actress. Her work with Sofia Coppola and Michel Gondry had started the process, but Melancholia’s dark cynicism, coupled with Dunst’s diminishing cache as an actress, allowed her to rip the persona to shreds. As a bride, viewers see a happy Justine, and then watch that image be immediately destroyed. A scene of her urinating on a golf course in a wedding dress seems like an appropriate “F You” to Hollywood fakery.

Dunst’s next character is similar to her Mona Lisa Smile role, but dialed up to 11. 2012’s Bachelorette gave Dunst an outlet to perform her most unlikable and simultaneously most authentic character. As Regan, one of three vapid women who come together for a friend’s wedding, Dunst is rude, snotty and generally unpleasant. But like Betty Warren, whose bitchery comes from parental upbringing, Regan is the way she is because society expects it. She’s the perfect maid-of-honor, able to defuse a situation and get things done, but it comes at the expense of having solid friendships. Regan is a character who oozes success yet remains unhappy because she’s forever unable to win. She’s Mary Jane Watson after years of taking Peter Parker’s crap. At one point, the character acknowledges a struggle with bulimia, a technique she utilized because “I wanted to be beautiful.”

The role of Regan was the final nail in Dunst’s “good girl” image. Dunst subverts the good girl traits — bright, bubbly, beautiful — and shows the struggle of maintaining said traits with all the real-world implications that ensue. During this period, her roles established that her persona was just that, but Bachelorette allowed her to send up “Kirsten Dunst” in a way that was refreshing and showcased a different facet of her talents. She could play a bitch and still put a smile on your face.

Bachelorette’s critical and commercial failure left Kirsten Dunst in minor roles and independent productions for the next few years, though she continued to lampoon her old characters. Even a cameo in Sofia Coppola’s drama The Bling Ring was an ironic twist commenting on her transition from ingenue to older star. In the film — based on the true story of several teens who robbed celebrities in Los Angeles — Dunst can be seen briefly walking through a nightclub. This moment almost acts as a goodbye to Dunst’s teenage dream days, ushering in the young upstarts (including Emma Watson) — the new “the girls” — who will fill the void Dunst left behind. Marie Antoinette has become queen and left her partying days behind.

NEXT TIME: Kirsten Dunst Now (2014 to Present)

Kristen Lopez (@Journeys_Film) is a freelance writer from Sacramento with a Masters in English. In her free time, she runs a classic film website and podcast where she’s had an opportunity to work with TCM. Kristen has been published at Flavorwire, Film School Rejects, The Playlist and Awards Circuit.