[Reposted in expanded form from here.]
"Fur" contains the first full-body shaving scene with erotic/symbolic intent we’ve come across in our years of watching movies. The first, and, it’s probably safe to say, last. You have to tip your hat to that â€” director Steven Shainberg‘s "imaginary portrait" of photographer Diane Arbus pursues an interesting premise deep into territory that would have most filmmakers surrendering in self-shame. It’s a valiant mess, but such an odd and unrepentant one that we left halfway won over.
As an opening title card informs us, the film is not a historical biography but one that "invents characters and situations that reach beyond reality to express what might have been Arbus’ inner experience on her extraordinary path" â€” a tactic necessitated by the fact that the Shainberg didn’t have the rights to use Arbus’ actual photographs. The film is set in 1958 New York, shortly before she launched the career that would eventually make her one of the foremost photographers of the century. Diane (Nicole Kidman), at least in the film’s imaginings, was at this point a perfectly groomed 50s housewife, caring for her two daughters and assisting her husband Allan (Ty Burrell) with his commercial photography studio. But not meant for the role of faded helpmate is Diane, whose life comes crashing in after she befriends her mysterious neighbor Lionel (Robert Downey Jr.), a man afflicted with hypertrichosis, a condition that’s left him covered with the titular full-body pelt.
Like Shainberg’s last film, "Secretary," "Fur" mixes a hyperconscious fairytale tone with themes of blooming outrÃ© sexuality. Lionel’s apartment, tucked away up a winding staircase in the depths of the building, is the rabbit hole through which Diane enters a nocturnal world of amputees and dominatrices, dwarves and drag queens. If the film weren’t so quick to introduce Lionel to the rest of the Arbuses, he could almost be imaginary, a freakshow Harvey arriving to seduce Diane away from her immaculate apartment and mild-mannered spouse and into another realm.
Shainberg apparently grew up in a house filled with Arbus’ photos â€” she was a friend of his uncle’s. It’s odd, then, that the film so simplifies her interest in unusual subjects â€” recalling a boy with a large birthmark she followed home as a child, Diane sighs breathily "He was so beautiful." Kidman plays the photographer as a wide-eyed, timorous-voiced ingenue whose interest in the unusual could absolutely never be conveyed as anything but benign. The spectre of voyeurism has been locked away in the basement â€” Diane, the film insists, was as much an oddity as the subculture she loves (and in the film’s world that word is most definitely singular â€” all those counter to the shiny, pastel norm mingle together in an all-accepting urban utopia). And why? Because she cared to look, and, we’re often reminded, to listen. The film’s favorite image is of Diane laying her camera aside to speak to someone; any fan of Arbus’ work will likely chafe at the reduction of her startling portraiture talents to a willingness to hold hands and share secrets with her subjects first.
As the invented Lionel, Downey Jr. manages to convey a whole weary world with just his gaze. Kidman, on the other hand, acts with all her might, but never manages to emotionally engage or present any convincing complexity. "Fur" doesn’t ultimately give much insight into the subject it purports to examine â€” instead, it’s more a portrait of a portrait of an artist. We end up with a good idea of how Shainberg imagines Arbus, as an unhappy girl, yet another repressed housewife with a unexpressed inner life, yearning for freedom. In trying to buck the biopic trend, Shainberg has achieved something structurally inventive but thematically flat or flat-out risible. His most provocative (and praiseworthy) move is to not include Arbus’ suicide at age 48. Given Indiewood’s love of fetishizing the tragic ends of mentally fragile female artists (Kidman herself walked loaded her pockets with rocks and walked into the river as Virginia Woolf in "The Hours" â€” Oscar!), it must have been a great temptation indeed.
Opens in New York and Los Angeles November 10th.
+ "Fur" (Picturehouse)