Back when I still bought things from TeeFury, there was this poster I loved: Designed by artist heymonster, it was a menagerie of different sketches of “strong female characters,” all reimagined with “Our Lady Of” titles. My favorites were Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation as Our Lady of Ambition; Buffy Summers as Our Lady of Protection; Liz Lemon from 30 Rock as Our Lady of Having It All; Dana Scully from The X-Files as Our Lady of Skepticism; and Ellen Ripley from the Alien franchise as Our Lady of Survival. It’s pretty great and you should consider buying it; take a look.
I was raised Muslim and I don’t know much about Catholicism—the extent of my knowledge is the iconography and imagery of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, which is still one of my favorite movies, don’t judge me—but I adore the thoughtfulness and creativity in that poster, in the linking of meaningful emblems with certain characters. Dana is framed with a UFO; Buffy with her favorite stake Mr. Pointy; Ripley with her “Get away from her, you bitch!” flamethrower; Leslie with JJ’s Diner waffles. And although the poster is character-based, not actress-based, as I look upon it more, I would love to see Kirsten Dunst imagined in that same style: Our Lady of Melancholy.
I love Kirsten Dunst; I can’t say it more plainly than that. A lot of that has to do with her long partnership with filmmaker Sofia Coppola, and with the complex work she consistently does when Coppola applies her mixture of lush and misunderstood femininity to films like The Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinette, and The Beguiled, which yeah, we liked here at Pajiba. I’m also superficially obsessed with her love life; her and Jesse Plemons (Landry! Still a really big deal!) seem pretty cute together, and I really still need to catch up on their season of Fargo. And I’m in awe of the looks she’s able to pull off from fashion house Rodarte; a few years ago, she wore a dress from the Rodarte Star Wars collection that had the Death Star on it and was so deliciously dark and whimsically strange I won’t ever forget it. [You can check out the Fug Girls’ thoughts on that outfit here.]
That sense of the “deliciously dark and whimsically strange” showed up again in the 2017 film Woodshock, the first film directed by the sisters behind Rodarte, fashion designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy, and starring Dunst. Did you see Woodshock? Have you even heard of Woodshock?
The September 2017 release from A24 Films flew so under the radar that it pulled in only about $42,000 in theaters on a budget of $5 million, and its home video release in November made barely any waves. Because of the Rodarte connection, it received coverage in prestigious fashion publications like Vogue and Vanity Fair, but the critical response was mostly savage. Nevertheless, what Woodshock demonstrated for Dunst, in the same year that she plays another aggrieved and desperate character in Coppola’s remake of The Beguiled, is that she is one of the most effective actresses of her generation at demonstrating bone-shatteringly profound existential sadness and grief. What would her “Our Lady Of” portrait look like? Whatever the details of that image, I’m sure I would like it, and I’m sure it would also bum me the fuck out.
Dunst has been immersing herself into characters who feel placeless and lost for some years now, but Woodshock may be her zenith. There was her breakthrough as child vampire Claudia in Interview with the Vampire, trapped in a young girl’s body as her mind grew more mature, unable to die, unable to live. Then there were those early ’00s hits—Torrance in Bring It On, M.J. in the first trio of Spider-Man films—which tied her to a spunky and sassy persona that continued during her foray into romantic dramas, like Wimbledon with Paul Bettany and Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown with Orlando Bloom.
But in the years since, Dunst has moved further and further away from those characters, instead growing more brittle and more wary in her roles—to her benefit, and ours. She was fantastically asshole-ish in Bachelorette as Regan, the resentful, miserable best friend to Rebel Wilson’s Becky, convinced that her physical beauty made her more worthy than Becky for love and deeply unhappy when that understanding of herself was thoroughly rejected by everyone she knew. She was the worst kind of condescendingly polite racist in Hidden Figures, constantly belittling Octavia Spencer’s Dorothy Vaughan while hiding behind a veneer of bureaucracy. Compare the hard line of her mouth, her refusal to smile, in Hidden Figures with the bubbly, Cali girl vibe of Bring It On—there are years of life experience in between those performances, sure, but also Dunst’s skill at demonstrating a kind of weariness, of wanting more and knowing you’re not going to get it.
Dunst’s true game changer was as the suicide-yearning Justine in Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, a role that directly informs what she pulls off in the stream-of-consciousness Woodshock. Both are deeply polarizing films, but I’d say Melancholia is more difficult at first watch. It’s a harsh, uncompromising experience that puts Dunst’s character Justine through the ringer: In her wedding gown, Justine is consistently objectified by others; she takes her fury and frustration out on her horse; she dismisses her sister’s fear and is honest about her satisfaction that the world is going to end. There’s a self-hatred and a cruelty to Dunst’s performance in Melancholia—how she snaps at people, how she fixes her judgmental gaze upon them, how she keeps rigid control over her body—but where that movie is definitively steely, Woodshock is more gauzily soft, more hazily dreamlike. In Melancholia, the only peace comes through obliteration; in Woodshock, it’s a return to the wildness of nature that is needed for absolution.
There’s an unyielding uncanniness to Woodshock, and Dunst channels that in a performance that demonstrates how overwhelming grief can be, how much it envelops and transforms. As an employee at a marijuana dispensary who is mourning the loss of her mother—a death in which she played a part—Dunst’s character Theresa is steadily unraveling. The only place where she can fully express herself is among the misty, desolate redwoods (the movie was filmed in California’s gorgeous Humboldt County), but Theresa seems to lose control of herself, too—or maybe she’s finally letting herself be free. She wanders for hours, touching the trees and curling up in their shadows. She whispers secrets to no one, sharing memories of getting lost and not wanting to come back. And in the middle of the night, she takes down a fence that separates her mother’s property from the woods, removing any obstacles between her body and those unfathomably ancient trees. They have a hold over her, and as she increases her use of hallucinogenic drugs, they seem more alive to her than anyone else.
The Mulleavy sisters have only a few tricks, but they use them well. The filmstock looks aged, the colors a little washed-out and muted, like a piece of jewelry you rediscovered after it sat for years gathering dust. They rely on dissolve fades quite often, making for some arresting images—Dunst’s face layered with bouquets of flowers, illuminated in harsh neon lights, or mirrored over and over again. And Dunst is the clear focus here, with layers of listlessness and increasing paranoia. Her body language folds inward; her eyes are often downturned and unsure; her movements seem weighted down. There is less disgust and more introspection to this performance than hers from Melancholia—and, as the character of Theresa becomes more feral, more beauty.
Woodshock isn’t a movie that boasts a clear-cut narrative or a truly developed plot. It doesn’t have much of a script or character development. But in its exploration of a woman’s descent and ascent, it cements Kirsten Dunst as Our Lady of Melancholy, as an actress whose performance of sadness is often eerily reflective and unshakably gorgeous.