“The Beguiled” is based on a 1966 novel by Thomas Cullinan that Don Siegel turned into an amusingly delirious 1971 vehicle for Clint Eastwood. Set in the South during the Civil War, it tracks a wounded Yankee, Corporal McBurney, who stumbles into a girls’ school and mistakenly starts behaving like a fox in a henhouse. Ms. Coppola hews close to the Siegel film in some respects, but she goes moody where he went outrageous and drains the story of both its heat and its sexism for something cooler. Colin Farrell plays McBurney, while Nicole Kidman flutters about as the headmistresses. Ms. Dunst is Edwina, a buttoned-up teacher who soon unbuttons.
Ms. Dunst, 35, made her film debut in Woody Allen’s “Oedipus Wrecks” (1989), one of three shorts in the anthology movie “New York Stories”; as it turns out, Ms. Coppola and her father, Francis Ford Coppola, wrote another of those shorts, “Life Without Zoe.” The women met years later and went on to make “The Virgin Suicides” (1999) and “Marie Antoinette” (2006), which was also at Cannes. Ms. Dunst said they “talk like old girlfriends” and that when Ms. Coppola called her about this film, “she was like: ‘Check out this movie, I’m going to remake it, I think. I want you to play the teacher. Let me know when you’ve seen the film, let me know what you think.’”
Ms. Dunst said that only when she saw the new “Beguiled,” with its isolation and percolation, did she realize it had been a perfect project for Ms. Coppola. Where Mr. Siegel went loud and lurid, Ms. Coppola has gone characteristically quiet, creating an unsettledness that Ms. Dunst nicely described as festering. “I could see why she was attracted to this story,” she said of Ms. Coppola, “but also why she wanted to tell it from a different perspective. It’s very old school. It’s like Clint Eastwood and his buddy making a movie. Well, now it’s Sofia and her buddies making a movie.”
Ms. Dunst, who conveys a preternatural old-soul melancholy onscreen, has gone light and dark over her nearly three decades in movies. She’s helped personalize blockbusters (the first “Spider-Man” cycle), headlined pop delights like the cheerleading romp “Bring It On” and easily shouldered the weight of “Melancholia,” the dystopian Lars von Trier drama that won her best actress at Cannes in 2011. She was sitting next to Mr. von Trier at the festival news conference when he, jokingly and stupidly, said he was a Nazi, which he apologized for. (He later retracted the apology.) I’ve always wondered if Mr. von Trier’s idiocy cost Ms. Dunst an Oscar nomination for that movie.
Like Ms. Kidman, Ms. Dunst has sustained an interestingly diverse career partly by making the kinds of movies that compete at Cannes. “I have to make financial decisions sometimes,” Ms. Dunst said of her résumé, “but also I really have stuck to my guns taste-wise, and that’s what’s made me have longevity. And I think that, as an individual, your brand is what you want to see. And that’s not easy, either. I’ve had to really work hard to make that happen.”
At one point, she brought up “Feud,” Ryan Murphy’s series about Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, observing that during old Hollywood, some actresses “were battling for way better roles than I have the opportunity to play.”
Ms. Dunst is making some of those opportunities herself. This year will bring the release of “Woodshock,” a movie she stars in and that she spent years making with her friends, the Rodarte designers turned directors Kate and Laura Mulleavy. Ms. Dunst has also been trying to turn another project, an adaptation of Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar,” into reality. “I’ve been working on the script for a while now,” she said. She wants to direct that movie but said she also wants to have children. She thinks balancing both desires is easier for actresses than it is for female directors and noted that “if you have a child, people judge you for going away and making a movie.”
Later, though, Ms. Dunst returned to Ms. Coppola who, when her daughters visit her on the set, has “the girls saying ‘action.’” Ms. Dunst clearly liked the sound of that.