2017 Film Essays

My Summer of Dunst: Volume 5

After five essays on Kirsten Dunst’s career, it’s safe to say that she has a keen survival instinct. Her films aren’t always profitable, but she’s prolific and has carved out a career that’s seen her adapt and cope with how the industry treats aging actresses. As this series nears its end, one has to ask: Where is Kirsten Dunst now? She’s still making movies, but her persona today is nothing compared to when she started. Whereas Dunst once seemed in control of shaping her own image, she’s now at the mercy of Hollywood’s inability (or unwillingness) to give her roles worthy of her talent. That’s not to say she doesn’t shine, nor that she isn’t taking roles that feel “Kirsten Dunst-esque,” but recent choices serve as evidence for the lack of support for female stars over 30.

The failure of Dunst’s previous films to gain any significant tread at the box office meant that she’d leave behind the self-aware “good girl” ala Bachelorette. Her role in the 2014 adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s Two Faces of January would mark Dunst’s new acceptance of “the girl” roles she once accepted. Two Faces of January features Dunst as Collette, an American expat in Europe stuck in a cat and mouse game between her husband (played by Viggo Mortensen) and an American tour guide (played by Oscar Isaac).

Dunst’s role is incidental, and unlike her previous love interest roles in Small Soldiers or Get Over It, her tired expressions give off an air of defeat. The self-awareness that once colored her characters is turned outward on the audience. The character, on-screen and off, is dead on arrival. Collette is little more than a prize part to galvanize the men into action and act as a heterosexual buffer for Highsmith’s subtextual homoeroticism. Two Faces of January is really a showcase for its male characters, only exemplified once Dunst’s character disappears halfway through the film. Dunst was once able to infuse a do-nothing part with her bubbliness and charm, but either because of the script’s inherent deficiencies or Dunst’s own perturbation, it doesn’t work. Collette is a role, both on film and in the original Highsmith novel, that would have benefited from Dunst’s appearance during her ingenue phase.

This inability to secure a gritty role explains why Dunst has flourished better in television, particularly on the FX series Fargo. She took a three year break to dabble in television, returning to film in 2016 as part of Jeff Nichols’ sci-fi family drama Midnight Special. Her role as the mild-mannered Sarah, mother to a mysterious little boy with magical powers, is Dunst’s first foray into mom territory — the natural “transition” for most actresses over 30. Like with The Two Faces of January, Dunst serves as little more than a female presence overshadowed by the trio of Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, and young Jaeden Lieberher. The role has shades of the Virgin Mary, and many consider Lieberher’s Alton as a Christ-figure, which gives Dunst more of a tangible presence in comparison to The Two Faces of January. However, the role continues to place her in a meek and mild, subservient position to her male costars.

After being “the girl” in two male-centric features, Dunst’s role in Hidden Figures was a breath of fresh air and also cast a disparaging eye on her history as an all-American girl. Hidden Figures tells the story of three African-American, female mathematicians and their struggle to be accepted by white employers while simultaneously getting a man into space. As Vivian Mitchell, Dunst represents the oppressive white counterpart to the three female protagonists. Dunst continues to show a flair for female ensemble films, but in comparison to her work with Sofia Coppola, her work in Hidden Figures exemplifies what an example of whiteness Dunst has become.

Her character’s institutional racism notwithstanding, Hidden Figures gives Dunst an antagonistic role where it’s impossible to root for her because of countless centuries of oppression. Where previous bitch characters like Regan allowed the fallacy of the good girl trope to be exposed, this character shows up and criticizes centuries of white female privilege. Dunst is an actress aware of her advantageous position in her life and career, and she channels it by playing a character that’s completely ignorant of her bigotry. Hidden Figures gives Dunst her greatest outlet to put the final nail in her good girl image.

After playing such a hated character, it’s both surprising and unsurprising that Dunst would retreat to the familiar with her most recent film, returning to the bosom of long-time collaborate Sofia Coppola for a remake of 1971’s The Beguiled. The story of a group of Southern women dealing with sexual frustration in the days of the Civil War couldn’t be further from the world of Hidden Figures — right down to Coppola receiving criticism for excising the original film’s lone woman of color. Dunst’s role, however, as quiet teacher Edwina Morrow, is the culmination of all her characters, past and present.

Coppola plays with Dunst’s past history in her features. Edwina, like Marie Antoinette, lives in an idyllic existence craving something more, but her closest cousin is Lux Lisbon of The Virgin Suicides. Edwina’s world of domesticity, coddled and confined by her employer Miss Martha Farnsworth (NIcole Kidman), is a continuation of what Lux’s life might have been had her character lived at the end of the film. Coppola even includes a scene mimicked from The Virgin Suicides, where Miss Martha — like Kathleen Turner’s Mrs. Lisbon — asks Edwina to cover her shoulders. Dunst is a mother figure to the girls in the school, yet she yearns for a sexual awakening; she inhabits every threshold she previously crossed and asks “What’s next?”

It is this “what’s next” mentality that leaves Dunst’s cinematic fate uncertain. Other than Coppola, who continues to give Dunst her most challenging work, Hollywood fails her at every front. If Spider-Man 3 proved anything, it’s that Dunst proves Hollywood’s limited understanding of how to deal with feminine aging. Dunst remains in control of her persona, but she’s also at the mercy of Hollywood scheming. She’s proven adept at jumping onto the emerging media of television, and she remains interested in playing with esoteric directors; she’ll next appear in the psychedelic film Woodshock and Yorgos Lanthimos’ On Becoming a God in Central Florida. From Two Faces of January on, there is the question of whether Dunst is becoming a character actress, if she wasn’t already? Her roles are small, but provide legitimacy and an air of Hollywood authenticity considering her lengthy career.

NEXT TIME: The final installment wraps it all up and pays tribute to some of the best Kirsten Dunst roles.

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.

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1 reply »

  1. I’m not sure this article does much with the fact that Dunst is downright impeccable, nuanced and brilliant in her last few supporting roles. She seems to have embraced a character actor sort of demeanor, exemplified best on Fargo but also on Midnight Special, Hidden Figures and The Beguiled, the last of which has been singled out in review after review as the MVP performance from the movie and worthy of her first Oscar nod (which she should already have received for Interview with the Vampire, Virgin Suicides and/or Melancholia, the last for which she should have won!)

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