Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus
2006, R, 120 min. Directed by Steven Shainberg. Starring Nicole Kidman, Robert Downey Jr., Ty Burrell, Harris Yulin, Jane Alexander.
REVIEWED By Toddy Burton, Fri., Dec. 8, 2006
Photographer Diane Arbus is known for her unconventional portraits, often of carnival performers, nudists, transvestites, or prostitutes. Somehow managing to be both comforting and unsettling, her photography makes the grotesque seductive and the familiar fantastical. Arbus was arguably a voyeur who delicately handled her frequently bizarre subjects with loving intimacy. But for director Shainberg (Secretary), Arbus (Kidman) becomes a bored housewife with a few pervy fetishes. Set in the Manhattan of 1958, the film takes place in the real world of Arbus' precareer years as a wife, mother, and assistant in her husband’s commercial photography studio. And from here, the story spins its fiction. Interesting cinematic moments flicker past in the colorful fashion portraits that Arbus concocts: Kodachrome models or rows of bright yellow rubber ducks. As the budding artist, Arbus, absorbs the world around her like a child. Everyday details (chewing, smoking, laughing) become exaggerated and grotesque. Then things get funky. Arbus becomes obsessed with her new upstairs neighbor, Lionel (Downey Jr.). A reclusive man, Lionel is inflicted with a rare condition known as hypertrichosis or wolfman syndrome. His whole body covered with long hair, Lionel grew up wearing masks and performing in freak shows. And now he makes his living creating wigs from his abundant coiffure. While Downey Jr. is usually so reliably wonderful as a screen presence, his Lionel is little more than just silly. During their first meeting, the cryptic dialogue between Arbus and Lionel is intended to sound provocative and surreal, but the result is confusing and creepy. Introducing Arbus to his community of carnival performers, transvestites, hookers, and the like, Lionel exposes her to the underworld. And she watches, entranced, like Donna Reed at a nudist colony. While the occasional moment feels genuine, Arbus never emerges as a character beyond a whispering porcelain doll perpetually on the verge of tears. And as the inevitable romance between Arbus and Lionel progresses, the filmmakers really seem to miss the point. The film becomes about Arbus turning Lionel into a real man. But to Arbus, her subjects were already real. They didn’t need to be conformed. Arbus dared the viewers to look into the eyes of her transvestites, hookers, and circus freaks and not see themselves. Fur dares the viewer to look into the eyes of Kidman and Downey Jr. and not see a whimpering housewife with a crush on Chewbacca.