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Published: 2006-11-09 - 14:35:00
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Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus Review

By Joe Lozito

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"Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus" is not shy about its conceit. The first words on screen explain that the film is "not a historical biography" but that it "invents characters and situations that reach beyond reality". Sounds intriguing enough. Knowing director Steven Shainberg from his darkly comic S&M fairytale "Secretary", "Fur" had some definite potential. Unfortunately, it turns out to be little more than a self-congratulatory exercise in oddness that never hits the surrealist heights it thinks it does.

Inspired by Patricia Bosworth's biography, the bland script by Erin Cressida Wilson (who also wrote "Secretary") paints a portrait of the artist as little more than a chronically frustrated housewife. Living with her husband Allan, a successful fashion photographer, and her two young daughters, the film's Ms. Arbus starts out constantly on the verge of tears. Whether it's because of her wealthy domineering parents or her feelings of being stifled by a life of playing housewife and assistant to her husband is unclear - particularly since both her husband and parents seemingly support her ambitions. Allan, in particular, encourages her to pick up the camera he bought her a decade earlier.

The film takes place during 1958, the year the real Ms. Arbus began experimenting with photography. In the film, during a dinner party, Ms. Arbus spots a strange man in a face mask moving into the upstairs apartment. Intrigued, she begins a series of clandestine nightly visits to her new neighbor who, it turns out, is Lionel Sweeny, the hirsute "wolf man" from the local circus (none other than Robert Downey Jr, no doubt doing some kind of penance in a full-on hair-shirt). Lionel and Diane form a peculiar bond based on his all-too-real, and her perceived, feelings of freakishness.

I'm not sure if it's the script or the actors, but the scenes between Mr. Downey and Ms. Kidman drag the film to a halt. Both actors put forth every line ("have a cup of tea", for example) as if it's a Shakespearean soliloquy. Ms. Kidman continues her string of icy, impenetrable performances (she hasn't been truly great since "The Hours" in which she played another doomed artist). It's ironic that Mr. Downey is able to express more feeling behind layers of hair, but his Lionel, who suffers from hypertrichosis, is so well-adjusted to his condition that he comes across almost obnoxious. The film isn't helped any by director Steven Shainberg's lethargic pacing.

There are a few truths to be learned in the film (for example, the artist pronounced her name "Dee-ann"). As in "Fur", the real Ms. Arbus used a Rolleiflex camera which allowed her to shoot from the hip, so to speak, while retaining eye contact with her subject. While few photos are actually shot during the film, Mr. Shainberg's does arrive at one bit of insight here which is that Ms. Arbus must have been able to achieve a level of intimacy with her subjects that would not have been possible behind a standard lens.

I should point out that my lack of familiarity with Ms. Arbus and her work makes me either the perfect or worst audience for this film. It's possible, with a little more knowledge about the woman herself I would have enjoyed the film more; I might have just missed an otherwise clever inside joke of a film. I don't think so though. "Fur" isn't interested in connecting with its audience or providing any real insights. It's too busy wearing its oddness on its sleeve. I may not know much about the real Ms. Arbus, but from what I've learned I can be pretty certain that a genuine biopic would have been much more interesting.

What did you think?

Movie title Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus
Release year 2006
MPAA Rating R
Our rating
Summary Nicole Kidman continues her string of icy, impenetrable performances in Steven Shainberg's oddly bland pseudo-biopic.
View all articles by Joe Lozito
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