Opens Friday December 29 FUR: AN IMAGINARY PORTRAIT OF DIANE ARBUS directed by Steven Shainberg, written by Erin Cressida Wilson from the book by Patricia Bosworth, with Nicole Kidman, Robert Downey Jr., Ty Burrell, Harris Yulin and Jane Alexander. 122 minutes. An Odeon Films release. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Diane Arbus can't possibly have died in 1971. Didn't she invent 70s New York?
But no, barbiturates and slit wrists killed Arbus early. Then Lou Reed, Robert Mapplethorpe, disco trannies and amyl nitrite came along to populate the world she'd created.
It's easy to confuse Arbus fact with fiction, because as much as her photographs document real people, they also stage split-second dramas of masquerade. That may be what got Steven Shainberg and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson thinking. What turned Arbus from a fashion photographer's wife into New York's demimonde chronicler? What if it was an upstairs neighbour covered head-to-toe in sleek, walnut hair?
That's the surprisingly satisfying premise of Fur, a film that, as an introductory title states, "invents characters and situations that reach beyond reality to express what might have been Arbus's inner experience." Shainberg (Secretary) films Fur as a dream-state psychobiography, with Robert Downey Jr. playing White Rabbit to Nicole Kidman's Arbus in Wonderland. (I bet Todd Haynes wishes he'd thought of this.)
Kidman and Downey are the inevitable cast for this film. She's made a career finding the limits of inchoate female subjectivity, and he's the consummate enabler. As Lionel, he's a furry, elegant Elephant Man living apart from the surface world, but more sly than tortured.
Kidman is flawless as a woman struggling to free herself from the civilized world of shaving and plucking, and learns to luxuriate in Lionel's outrageous pelt. But it's exactly that overly specific symbolism that mars Fur. Arbus leaves the grotesquery of luxury for the luxury of the grotesque, a point made far too cleanly. It makes you wish Shainberg had gone for a messier approach, or cast a less tasteful actor than Kidman. You're left longing for the fucked-up glory of his Secretary.
Every woman I know loves Secretary, which says as much about Shainberg's pitch-perfect skills as it does about the women I know. With Fur, he revisits the same essential story a man giving a woman permission to tap her own dark desires with the discipline of a true S/M master.
But Fur is neither as exciting nor as surprising as Secretary. It bleeds away dramatic conflict, and never gets below the surface of the bond Arbus established with the self-proclaimed freaks she photographed. Fur offers lots of lovely little uncanny shivers but it neglects the wisdom of one of Arbus's famous quotes.
"A photograph is a secret about a secret," she once said. "The more it tells you, the less you know."