TORONTO — Kirsten Dunst has a confession to make. When Lars Von Trier contacted her — first by email, then by Skype — about a part in his new film, Melancholia, she said yes, immediately.
"But it was funny," Dunst says, "because when Lars offered me the movie, I wasn't completely sure which character he wanted me to play. There are two girls. And I was like, 'I'd love to do it! I'd love to do it!'
"And I remember getting off the phone and thinking: Which one? Who am I? Justine or Claire?"
Von Trier, it turns out, had Dunst in mind for Justine, a bride who shows up late for her own wedding reception, and who wanders through the swank and cavernous halls of her family's mansion — a castle, really — in a state of benumbed calm. (Charlotte Gainsbourg, star of Von Trier's jolting Antichrist, is the other sister, Claire.)
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Von Trier, the Danish director who got booted out of the Cannes Film Festival in May for his awkward news-conference ramblings about Jews and Nazis (more on that in a minute), pitched Melancholia as "a beautiful movie about the end of the world."
Indeed, as various family and friends gather for Justine's wedding, a new planet appears in the sky, looming closer and closer to Earth. Cataclysm is on its way.
But the film, too, is a big, romantic visual symphony, a sweeping, wide-screen meditation on depression. Dunst's Justine is deep in her own dark world.
"Someone said to me that Justine is really like Lux grown up," says Dunst, 29, referring to the shell-shocked teen she played in Sofia Coppola's 1999 debut, The Virgin Suicides.
Melancholia, which also stars John Hurt, Charlotte Rampling, Alexander Skarsgård and Kiefer Sutherland, won Dunst the best-actress prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
Von Trier, in an interview on the Melancholia Web site, says, "I think she's one hell of an actress. She is much more nuanced than I thought, and she has the advantage of having had a depression of her own."
Dunst checked herself into a Utah treatment center in 2008. And she does acknowledge that one reason she wanted to do Melancholia was that "you could really put your own inner life into this film."
Another is that she finds Von Trier's work — Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville — compelling.
"I remember, too, in Antichrist, the scene with the baby falling out of the window — it was so beautiful. He shows these scenes of tragedy and doom and makes them exquisitely beautiful. He's really one of the best around."
Dunst's Melancholia sibling, Gainsbourg, took home the best-actress honors at Cannes two years ago for her work in Antichrist. This time it was Dunst's turn.
"Winning at Cannes meant so much to me," Dunst said while at another film festival, Toronto's, for Melancholia's gala screening in September. "It's such a prestigious award. I would always look to see who won at Cannes, and would always think I have to watch that movie. I've held it in such high regard, and to be a part of that history, with all the other women who have won."
At the Cannes news conference, with Dunst sitting next to her director as he blubbered on about how "I really wanted to be a Jew and then I found out that I was really a Nazi."
"I was just shocked that he went on that tangent," she said. "I wanted to stop him but I couldn't get involved. ... I think he was trying to respond to an out-of-left-field question about his biological father by being humorous, by saying, 'I thought I was Jewish but I'm actually,' you know, he tried to bring humor to a question that was pretty rude, and then he kept going when nobody laughed, and then he kept going some more, and kept going. Yeah, a spiral of disaster.
"I don't even remember what I said after the conference — it was like, what the hell just happened?"
But even as Von Trier was sent packing, Dunst and the movie she stars in were warmly embraced. Although some people at Cannes hated it, too, which is all fine with her.
"So many people get different things out of the film," she says. "It's definitely one that you will love or hate. There's no mix. And I like that.
"I think you have made a good film when people are super into it, or not into it at all. Anything's better than being in the middle."