For a long time, it seemed as if Kirsten Dunst might be hell-bent on becoming America’s sweetheart at any applicable age. In her younger days, she appeared as the girl hero of two different movies, Jumanji and Small Soldiers, that were essentially about toys coming to life and wreaking adorable havoc on picturesque towns. She has also played bubbly teenagers (Bring It On, Dick, Drop Dead Gorgeous, Get Over It), the beloved crush of Spider-Man, and the original Manic Pixie Dream Girl, among others, usually falling somewhere on a spectrum between cheerleader type and girl next door.
Yet there has long been a river of melancholy rushing below Dunst’s shiny, oft-blond exterior—an unarticulated sadness that creeps in past her warm, sometimes heavy-lidded smiles. It was there in her first attention-grabbing movie role, as the vampire doomed to eternal childhood in Interview With The Vampire, just as it’s there in the otherwise stock part of the unfriendly white lady standing in Octavia Spencer’s way in the recent Hidden Figures. Some movies use this quality better than others, but there’s hardly a filmmaker who uses it as well as Sofia Coppola.
Although they’ve collaborated on three movies (four counting her quick cameo-as-self in The Bling Ring), Dunst and Coppola work together infrequently enough for their collaborations to feel like check-ins. It’s particularly noticeable with Dunst because she has had the fascinating (and presumably sometimes terrifying) experience of growing up on movie screens. Her first movie with Coppola was The Virgin Suicides, which was playing in U.S. theaters the same summer Dunst appeared in the ebullient cheerleading comedy Bring It On.
In Suicides, Dunst plays Lux Lisbon, one of five Lisbon daughters who fascinate the neighborhood boys, who are onscreen characters but are most clearly represented by the disembodied voice of narrator Giovanni Ribisi. Theoretically, Lux is part of an unknowable gaggle, but she emerges almost immediately from the pack—the first shot of the movie is of Dunst alone in the frame, finishing up a popsicle in front of a suburban backdrop. Coppola’s first movie has her recognizable dreamy-melancholy vibe, but it’s more stylistically playful than her other films, so it occasionally cuts away to fantasy close-ups of Lux, subtly matched by one-shots of Dunst in the “real” world that separate her from her older and younger siblings.
Even when the Lisbon girls are shown walking into a room together, Coppola’s camera zeroes in on Dunst. Some of this focus is clearly for plot reasons (and may be even more clear in the Jeffrey Eugenides source material, unread by me), as Lux is the sister who is romanced and then cruelly abandoned, post-sex, on a football field by jocky Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett). With the Lisbon girls headed for the same fate, Dunst’s casting as Lux is key; she becomes a sort of figurehead for all five sisters. Given that, she has to convey a lot—especially considering the story isn’t really told from her point of view.
Lux’s interactions with the neighborhood boys have the same mischievous light hassling, a kind of pretend insouciance, that Dunst shows in her kid-movie and teen-movie parts. When her all-night tryst with Trip (and his subsequent abandonment) leads to the Lisbons’ strict parents placing their kids on lockdown, Dunst—playing a character who’s just 14—shows off a hardened, more resolved version of her flirtiness as she invites the neighborhood boys in for what turns out to be the discovery of the Lisbon sisters’ lifeless bodies. Dunst would have shot Suicides before Bring It On, and if the movies don’t have much in common, there is a kind of desperate determination to Torrance Shipman that doesn’t feel worlds away from Lux Lisbon’s eerily confident taking of her own life, sitting in a garage, breathing in exhaust, dangling a cigarette outside a car window.
By the time Coppola and Dunst reteamed for Marie Antoinette, Dunst had graduated to adult roles, a rite of passage depicted by her literally graduating high school in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, and also falling in love with a radioactive nerd over the course of that movie and its sequel. (This may seem like a bizarre way to make the transition into young adulthood, but Dunst got off lucky; plenty of female stars after her have been forced to graduate and re-graduate high school repeatedly in movies, like super-seniors who keep failing.) Yet when Marie Antoinette begins, she’s playing the title character at the exact same age as Lux Lisbon: Marie is 14 when she is married off to the man who would become Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman).
During the events of the film, she ages about two decades, though it doesn’t always register as such because Coppola lets the events of her life run together, sometimes jumping years in a single unannounced cut. It’s one of many strategies the film employs to make the world of Marie Antoinette feel both tactile and disposable. Coppola displays the enormous wealth and royal glitz on hand, but doesn’t linger on it. Indeed, one of the movie’s highlights is a montage of clothes, shoes, desserts, and champagne that wouldn’t look out of place in a merry teen comedy. The difference, though, once again lies in Dunst’s ability to convey desperation beneath frivolity—her Marie Antoinette revels in drinks and up-dos and gambling because she’s trying to latch onto something joyful. It’s a superficial façade as a defense mechanism.
That façade is visible straight away, as Coppola again gives her star the very first shot: Dunst’s version of the queen is seen lounging in a chair, swiping at the frosting of an elaborate cake, and looking at the camera, betraying little of the loss she registers as her story begins in earnest moments later, capturing her as a fidgety teenager. In both luxurious repose and in aimless ennui, so much of Dunst’s performance in this film is nonverbal. Marie is rarely shown in extensive conversation with anyone (least of all her lock-obsessed husband), and when she does speak, Dunst doesn’t use an Austrian accent, a gambit that pays off with extra vulnerability. This version of Marie Antoinette has little in the way of regal bearing, and despite her supposed position of power, is not encouraged to speak her mind.
It’s easy to see why Coppola’s intrigue-light version of palace intrigue drew mixed responses during its initial 2006 release, but with Dunst’s help, she turned Marie Antoinette into, among other things, a study of arrested girlhood. Even as queen in waiting, Marie doesn’t have much control over her fate, and as her teenage years turn into her 20s, she remains stuck. She has some room to wriggle, by spending money on lavish parties or keeping company with amusing friends, and later in the film, she’s able to express herself, to some degree, through motherhood. But even that modest emotional allowance is tied up in the duty to provide an heir to the country that eventually turns on her.
It would be a stretch to say that The Beguiled rejoins Dunst in middle age; she’s still well within her 30s, and despite the 11-year gap between the films, The Beguiled picks up with her character approximately the same age as she is at the end of Marie Antoinette. But The Beguiled also places her alongside several younger actors, in a time period where 35 was not nearly so youthful as it is today. So while every major female character in the movie is at some point infatuated with Colin Farrell’s Corporal McBurney, Dunst’s Edwina, in all her unsmiling dutifulness, has the strongest emotional impact. Nicole Kidman, playing the head of the Southern girls’ school where Union soldier McBurney lays low, commands some degree of power, even as she fights her improper attraction to this man, while Elle Fanning gets many of the movie’s surprising number of laughs with her youthful petulance. Edwina is stuck in the middle, neither spitfire ingénue nor steely woman in charge.
Coppola seems aware that Edwina warrants some extra attention; Dunst isn’t the only recipient of close-ups in the movie, but it does often feel like Coppola’s camera gets in tighter on her face in a film that otherwise uses plenty of multiple-character tableaux. She’s the character who has the most invested in believing McBurney’s opportunistic flirtations and intimations. She’s also the only one who doesn’t conspire to get rid of him—expecting, as she does, that they will run away together.
It’s a heartbreaker of a performance, and one of several areas where the new film improves upon the 1971 version directed by Don Siegel. That movie had something of a hallucinatory hothouse atmosphere, while Coppola’s re-adaptation manages to be both funnier and sadder. There’s a weight to seeing Dunst—Mary Jane Parker, Torrance Shipman, absurd screenwriter’s fantasy from Elizabethtown—with her slyness stripped away and her smile weakened or vanished when forced to, say, cover up her dinner dress with a shawl. Edwina has clearly given up hope that she can either work or charm her way into a better, more fulfilling life, which makes McBurney’s suggestion that they run away together a cruelty disguised as a kindness.
Coppola isn’t the only filmmaker to tap into the sadness that’s accumulated behind Dunst’s eyes as she’s matured. Dunst gave a terrific performance in Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, playing a woman whose deep depression leaves her perversely prepared for the literal end of the world, and assayed a less consuming but still palpable sense of ennui on season two of Fargo. But there’s something distinct about Coppola’s treatment of her, maybe because she can see her star’s glamorous side so clearly, even if it does sometimes serve as a façade.
Coppola has been painted, for better and for worse, as an expert chronicler of White Lady Malaise. If she does lean into that role by, say, jettisoning a slave character from The Beguiled on the grounds that she didn’t think herself qualified to tell that story (however tangentially), her focus is far from the narrowest in Hollywood, as evidenced by just how few female directors there are, nevermind how even fewer get to make a movie with The Beguiled’s three-quarters female majority in its principal cast. She turns out to be the perfect director to check in on a star over the course of 15 years, because her work is unusually attuned to the subtleties of life’s disappointments (which is strange because, as we’ve been informed countless times, her standing as the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola inoculates her against any human feeling beyond luxuriating in her enormous wine fortune and collection of Apocalypse Now memorabilia).
This is perhaps clearest with Marie Antoinette, who Coppola turns into a sympathetic figure not by trumpeting or recontextualizing her accomplishments, but by observing a version of her behavior in her situation with empathy, recognizing both the decadence and the beauty of a palace lifestyle. Plenty of starlets—and at least one famous director’s daughter—have been scorned for appearing pampered, unsympathetic, and out of touch. It’s a charge that seems to stick more firmly to women, and all three of these Coppola movies take the time to consider femininity in a male-dominated world.
Coppola’s ability to examine this material is an especially good match with Dunst, who can appear aloof, even in lighter fair. Think of how the emotional side of the sweetly goofy Watergate story Dick belongs to Michelle Williams, hilariously besotted with Richard M. Nixon, while Dunst’s character has a certain emotional distance by comparison. When Coppola catches Dunst in close-up (or even a well-framed medium shot), she’s pushing past a natural sense of remove.
This tension between remove and intimacy exists in all of Dunst’s characters for Coppola. Lux laments her parents’ strictness but toys with the mysterious allure it gives her. Marie Antoinette is cut off from anything resembling an average life, but also sometimes cut off from life, period. Edwina tamps down her emotions but gives herself over to McBurney with heedless passion. In Coppola’s hands, this series of contradictions is a young woman’s dilemma: living in the world, but not always permitted to be a part of it.