To me, the real definition of "screen presence" or star power is the ability to visually hold the screen. It's not as simple as being good looking, or well known. It's a quality, I think, of "something behind the eyes" - the presence of a mind that conveys feeling, thinking, something to make us both curious and satisfied, all at once.
I'm not explaining it all that well, but whatever it is, Kirsten Dunst is a movie star because she has it. She has had it for a long time, really since she first burst onto the scrren in Interview With The Vampire. Big or small, arty or lightweight (bring it on!), most of Dunst's work is amazing because she's so much more than just an attractive face.
Melancholia opens (as Manohla Dargis, lord help me, describes) with a series of dreamlike shots of Dunst in various moments of the film's story. There's a shot of her sinking into the ground as she tries to run across a golf course, and a shot of her appearing to conduct electricity. And there's the dramatic shot of her in an opulent wedding dress, tangled in strings and branches, trying to escape a forest. All of it centered on Dunst, beautiful, magnetic, mysterious.
And then the world ends.
Director Lars von Trier makes the nervy decision to show his hand up front - the plot of Melancholia, no spoiler, is that a giant planet is headed for the Earth and will crash into it and destroy it. But that, really, is not what Melancholia is about. Melancholia is a musing on depression, a science fiction story about being so depressed it's the end of the world... except if the world were really to end.
Dunst plays Justine, a young woman who is getting married at the start of Melancholia, whom we first see on her way to the reception with her new husband. The reception is taking place at the large hotel/estate of her sister and brother-in-law, and things, naturally, go disastrously awry. The bride's family is a mess, her boss is on hand to pressure her to work, and Justine is sinking into a deep depression that makes it impossible for her to please all of the people who expect so much from her. It's a long night, with a variety of dramas and revelations... but we wind up with a marriage that couldn't survive the after party, and a woman uncertain of her future.
We next see Justine returning to her sister Calire's a few weeks later, when her depression has worsened, and the world is gripped by the news of Melancholia, the planet headed straght for us. Claire's husband is fascinated by the planet's movements, the real life science experiment happening overhead, less concerned with his family's growing concern, or with supporting Justine at her most desperate hour of need. Claire is left to try and hold everything together - her fragile sister, her difficult marriage, and taking care of her young son. It is, in the end, too much.
As Claire sinks, miraculously, Justine revives; as Melancholia inches closer to its collision (the one we've already seen), Justine sharpens, gains focus, It's Justine who takes charge as Claire gets ever more hopeless and helpless, especially when John, her husband, realizes that we are, in fact, doomed. And it's Justine who faces the final end more alive, more present than ever, whose face may well be the last thing we ever see.
Von Trier is a difficult, eccentric director - and that's being kind - and Melancholia is not without his usual tics and tendencies, particularly to mistreat his beautiful female leads, and to be needlessly heavy handed with his thematic points, especially in his graphic depictions of sex and female sexuality. That said, this may be von Trier's best, most commercially accessible film yet, a sharp piece of carefully controlled sci-fi that harks back to classics like Raymond Carver, where a hypothetical futuristic scenario yields well observed thoughts on the current human condition. As a metaphor for depression, the end of the world caused by slamming into a planet named Melancholia may be obvious... but it's also, in its way, accurate. Von Trier's implication is that something about depression is personal, internal - it turns on, and then, for some reason, turns off. He also suggests, via Justine and Claire's interpersonal dynamic, that depression is catching, and that passing it along may somehow be part of surviving.
As I said at the start, what holds all of this together is Dunst, luminous, fearless, taking enormous risks as an actress that pay off, handsomely, in the end, as Justine regains her inner strength and sense of purpose. As she bathes, naked, in the glow of Melancholia as it approaches, Dunst is every inch the movie goddess, but that is almost beside the point; it's her moments of near catatonia, her desperation as Justine is at her lowest, that really speak volumes to how natural and unforced her work can be.
Dunst is ably supported by a stellar international cast - especially Charlotte Gainsbourg as Claire and Kiefer Sutherland (who knew?) as the feckless John. But there are masterfu turns by John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling as her parents, Stellan Skarsgaard as her boss, and several lovely young men during the wedding scenes (notably Alex Skarsgard as her new spouse). It's likely that von Trier had two films that didn't make sense until he combined them - one a bitter wedding story, the other, this intruiging idea about a planet. Together, they make a genius combination, a way to underline what matters, and what we really have to live for, in every sense.
Handsomely shot, and beautifully scored (as well as stunningly costumed), Melancholia may suffer during awards season from an understandable backlash against von Trier's thoughtless manner of speaking, but it's terribly unfair to such an ambitious, fascinating exercise, graced with such a daring, expressive performance. In a sane world, Dunst would easily face off against Michelle Williams and Meryl Streep. But likely there's no justice to be had, and Dunst will have to simply advance on a brilliant revival of her career in an overlooked gem. If you have better sense than an Academy voter, I'd urge you to give Melancholia a look.