When Kirsten Dunst was awarded the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival for her turn as a manic-depressive ad woman/bride in Lars Von Trier's gorgeous apocalypse parable Melancholia, much of the international press corps sniffed that it was a consolation prize. Had it not been for Von Trier's regrettable press-conference debacle in which the Danish provocateur clumsily joked about his Nazi credentials, went the whispers, Melancholia surely would have bested The Tree of Life for the Palme d'Or.
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Such talk, while predictable in the zero-sum game of cinema spectatorship that measures quality in trophies, is hugely insulting to the long-underrated Dunst. Absent from significant films since the one-two punch of consecutive flops Elizabethtown and Marie Antoinette, her five years in the wilderness have included well-publicized romantic trauma and a hospitalization for depression. In Melancholia, she now draws on her own experiences to play a character inspired by the struggles of her notoriously emotionally unbalanced director.
The starlet's rebirth via collaboration with an eccentric, would-be-dangerous European auteur mirrors the myth-making plight of Louise Brooks — the helmet-haired, notorious party girl/dime-a-dozen contract player who was fired from Paramount in 1929, fled to Germany to make two films with G.W. Pabst and became the ultimate silent film sex icon, thanks to her world-beating starring performance in Pabst's Pandora's Box (1929).
Like Pabst before him, Von Trier chose his American actress for a reason. Dunst is the embodiment of the wholesome American teen-as-pinup in her Bring It On era, one of the key "stars" of the entertainment media's shift in focus from on-camera work to caught-on-camera "reality" in the '00s, barely visible on-screen or off in the nearly four years since she checked into rehab, now inching back into serious films as she pushes 30. She's the ideal icon for a film that limns its deeply felt, grandly affecting paean to the bittersweet comfort of being sad, with a typically Von Trier–ian acidic, ironic critique of how melancholy is exploited and perverted by the culture industry. How else to explain the Dunst character's transition from tagline writer to topless star of a madness-fetishizing tableau straight out of a high-fashion advert (the same aesthetic Von Trier cheekily co-opted for the horrific sex-meets-death opening sequence of his last feature, Antichrist)? Or, for that matter, the repeated use of refrains from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde — the Frankfurt school's embodiment of the "false consciousness" peddled by pop masquerading as art?
The Dunst/Von Trier collaboration is one for the ages, and Melancholia — with two months to go in 2011 — is currently my pick for the film of the year.