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IN the first of two acclaimed performances by Kirsten Dunst at the 64th Cannes Film Festivalin May, a rapt audience watched as a dozen emotions — amusement, stoicism, distress, weariness, embarrassment and rue among them — played across her features in a scene in which she was required to maintain her composure at every moment and express an extraordinary range of feeling with almost no dialogue.

That particular tour de force was a one-time-only live show, the occasion being the news conference at which the depressive, eccentric Danish director Lars von Trier did his level best to torpedo the premiere of his latest film, “Melancholia,” in which Ms. Dunst stars. As he wandered into a tasteless rhetorical cul-de-sac about Nazis, Jews, Israel and his own ancestry, Ms. Dunst, seated next to him, looked on — although “looked on” doesn’t begin to cover what the blog FourFour, which posted an animated grid of her facial expressions, called the “extremely tense, wholly human experience” of “watching her negotiate her reality with what’s happening next to her.”

It’s a tribute to Ms. Dunst that the explosive reaction to the conference, which resulted in Mr. von Trier being declared persona non grata at Cannes, did not overshadow her work in the movie, which a few days later won her the festival’s best actress prize. (The film opens on Nov. 11.) It was a sweet victory for a performer who is still best known as Spider-Man’s girlfriend and whose previous accolades tended to be for things like best “lip lock” at the Teen Choice Awards.

Ms. Dunst, who seems to have been in our movie consciousness for ages but is still just 29, is happy to talk unguardedly about both Cannes performances. In a recent conversation at the Greenwich Hotel in TriBeCa, near her apartment, she giggled, and sighed, and shook her head, and said of the news conference: “My reaction was like a reaction to a friend who’s basically killing himself. I was so upset that he just kept going, trying to get to a place where there’d be a laugh. And I was also very aware that I was in a roomful of journalists, and that I couldn’t say anything, although I think at one point I did whisper to him, ‘Lars, shut up, this is terrible.’ And then I was also thinking ahead, imagining, you know, ‘Party Canceled,’ ‘Dinner Canceled,’ ‘Premiere Canceled.’ ”

For Ms. Dunst, who remains an enthusiastic supporter of Mr. von Trier (though not of his reckless comments), it was a not entirely surprising moment. When she first learned that the filmmakers Susanne Bier and Paul Thomas Anderson had recommended her to Mr. von Trier to play Justine, she flew to Denmark to meet him. Justine is the deeply depressed protagonist of the two-act “Melancholia” whom we watch first destroy her day-old marriage and then face, with remarkable aplomb, the end of the world.

“We went out to dinner that night, and he shared a lot with me about his own depression,” she said. “I think whatever concoction of pills he needs to take sometimes makes him shake, so I was like, ‘Lars, are you O.K.?’ You instinctively want to nurture him. So then he starts coming out with these things — things that you just don’t say to a young girl you’re having dinner with for the first time.”

In Sweden, where the movie was shot in the summer of 2010, Ms. Dunst continued, “we had one more dinner, and he started in again,” with inappropriate jokes that startled Kiefer Sutherland, a “Melancholia” co-star, so much that, she said, “he almost became kind of sweetly protective of me.” But at that dinner “I realized, this is just his sense of humor, and I loved it,” she said. “Yeah, he’s got a weird, pervy side. But you either roll with it, or block certain things out, or laugh about it, or just say, ‘O.K., weirdo, whatever.’ ”

None of that dissuaded her from taking the role, nor did the challenge of playing a central character who, for long stretches, says almost nothing. Particularly in the extended wedding-party sequence that fills the first half of “Melancholia” Ms. Dunst has to convey Justine’s churning, toxic unhappiness with an absolute minimum of words. “The script has chunks of description: ‘She stops. She takes a few steps. She looks up. She sees her husband. Then she turns around and walks toward the golf course,’ ” said Ms. Dunst, who previously had some experience with depression herself, and decided to do what she called “character therapy” to prepare, working with a coach on every beat of the script, several hours a day for weeks.

Mr. Sutherland described her as “unbelievably committed to going in the direction Lars wanted.” He added, “In some ways, by giving so much to the role, almost surrendering to it, she may have gotten more out of the film than anyone else.”

But if Ms. Dunst approached the role with abandon, she was also methodical about it.

“Obviously when you’re depressed, you’re not always clear about why you’re reacting in a certain way,” she said. “But for the character I had to at least be clear about what I was unclear about. And I knew Lars really wanted to home in on what depression looks like in the eyes — that you can smile at the same time as your eyes are dead. When I watch the movie now, there are scenes where I don’t even recognize myself or the way I sound.” She added, “My voice is so low it makes me uncomfortable.”

That was particularly true during the movie’s second half, in which a planet called Melancholia literally hangs over the characters’ heads as it approaches impact with Earth. For all that, she insisted that the shoot was “the most fun I’ve ever had on a set.”

“Real depression is boring,” she said. “There’s not usually a lot of cinematic stuff going on. And Lars had a very creative way of making it not boring.”

“Melancholia” has won Ms. Dunst some of the best reviews of her career, but there is one problem it won’t solve: “Yeah,” she said cheerfully, “I am a little embarrassed when the valet guy says to me: ‘Hey, are you ever going to do another movie? I haven’t seen you since ‘Spider-Man.’ ”

Though she has worked steadily since her thunderclap arrival in 1994 as the 12-year-old who stole “Interview With the Vampire” from Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt, it has now been more than four years since she starred opposite Tobey Maguire in “Spider-Man 3,” the last time she was seen in a major studio release.

She speaks fondly of the superhero franchise, saying: “I miss the comfort of knowing I’d come back to those bookends every few years. I grew up doing those movies.” But she wasn’t heartbroken when Sony chose to reboot the series with a younger cast in next summer’s “Amazing Spider-Man.”

“I thought it would be really cool to have me and Tobey walking through the background of this new one as extras, just, like, eating lunch next to the new Spider-Man,” she said. “I would have loved to do that.”

After “Spider-Man 3” Ms. Dunst slowed her pace a bit, and when she did work, it was “in movies that were in fewer theaters,” she said, and in roles, like that of a sociopath’s lover opposite Ryan Gosling in “All Good Things” in December, that played effectively against her sunny charms.

“She has something deep about her which is unexpected with her cute-blonde looks,” said Sofia Coppola, who directed her in “The Virgin Suicides” and “Marie Antoinette.” “It’s that mysterious quality that makes you want to watch someone; you think more is going on than just on the surface.”

Ms. Dunst said there was no particular strategy behind her shift away from the mainstream except, perhaps, a desire not to be pigeonholed. Ms. Dunst may be the only actress of her generation who, when asked about her career ambitions, expresses in one breath a desire to be directed by Michael Haneke, the Austrian filmmaker whose acridly misanthropic movies make “Melancholia” look like “Glee,” and in the next talks about how much she would love to be a voice in a Pixar cartoon. “I don’t want to be ‘box-office girl,’ ” she said, “but I don’t want to be ‘that indie girl’ either.”

The next year or two will be an interesting experiment in whether she can be both. She has a small part in Walter Salles’s already completed adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” and a big one in the large-scale science-fiction romance “Upside Down,” both set to open next year. She recently started work as “kind of a bitch, which is fun because I never get to do that,” on a film adaptation of Leslye Headland’s comic play “Bachelorette.” (It’s not related to the ABC series, a show that Ms. Dunst confesses tops her list of reality-TV obsessions.)

And in January she will jump into another indie film, about which she will say nothing except that the script really excites her and that “I cannot have my dad see this movie.”

Which raises the question of whether he will see “Melancholia,” in which Ms. Dunst undergoes that now-decades-old rite of passage, a somber nude scene for a serious-minded European director.

“My father is European,” Ms. Dunst said. “So he’s very much like, ‘You have a beautiful body, I helped make you, it’s for the art, it’s not weird at all.’ But it’s weird for me,” she added, laughing. “I don’t know if I want my uncle to see it, or my brother. I said: ‘Mom, you see it, and then you decide who else gets to see it. And Dad, I’m definitely not sitting next to you.’ ”

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