Every fictional take on a real-life artist gets a few things wrong, but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen one quite as spectacularly wrong or thoroughly insulting as Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus. The film is both prefaced and followed by strenuous disclaimers letting us know that the situation depicted never happened and that many of the characters are entirely fictional, but there’s no explanation of why the filmmakers ever thought this ridiculous little movie should be made. It offers absolutely no insight into Arbus or her work — rather it seeks an alternate and wholly improbable explanation for her unique vision — nor does it in any way justify its own existence as a creative work. The filmmakers are not just satisfied in being foolish; they further insist on being tiresome.
Those responsible for this travesty are director Steven Shainberg and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson, the pair that previously treated us to a woman-as-willing-victim scenario in Secretary. This time, their female lead isn’t so much a victim as a cipher, a weak and thoroughly bland person who requires a life full of human oddities to make herself seem remotely interesting. The plot is A Doll’s House by way of Beauty and the Beast — timid Diane finds her artistic inspiration and an escape from her tedious marriage when she falls in love with Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy. It’s an inane conceit, but more importantly it’s a deeply sexist one, reviving the antiquated notion of woman as a passive vessel for inspiration delivered by a man.
The film opens and closes with a few brief scenes recreating Arbus’ famous visit to a nudist colony, but the bulk of it takes place three months earlier, where it “reimagines” or “speculates” or, in other words, “makes up shit” to show us how she wound up there. It’s Manhattan in 1958, and Diane (Nicole Kidman, miscast) is married to Allan Arbus (Ty Burrell, also miscast), a semi-successful fashion photographer whose biggest client is Russeks department store, which specializes in furs — nudge, nudge — and which also, not coincidentally, is owned by Diane’s parents. In these early scenes, Diane is a mousy helpmeet with little creativity or ambition of her own — it’s like one of those Julianne Moore roles where she plays a sensitive woman stifled by ’50s conformity — and Allan is depicted as a typical husband of the period, genial but vaguely condescending and little attuned to her emotional needs. (This is all completely inaccurate; Patricia Bosworth’s authoritative biography of Arbus, which the film claims to be [verrrry] loosely based on, describes their creative partnership as unusually equal and Allan as a concerned, empathetic husband who often slipped into his own black moods as his wife struggled with depression.)
Like any woman in a lackluster movie marriage, what Diane needs is a good affair, preferably with a former freakshow entertainer with hair covering every inch of his body. Enter Robert Downey Jr. as Lionel Sweeney, the Arbuses’ new upstairs neighbor who suffers from hypertrichosis, also known as “werewolf syndrome.” Lionel has had the good business sense to profit by his condition, making fine wigs from unwanted portions of his own pelt, but aside from that and the fact that he has some very odd ideas about how to receive guests in his home, we really don’t learn much about him. He’s a nice enough sort, but the fur is all that really matters here, and Downey’s considerable gifts are squandered beneath an awful lot of hair and atop a very thin characterization. But Lionel, lazily conceived or not, seems to be just what Diane was looking for, and soon he has introduced her to dozens of friends with similarly unusual physiognomies, setting her up with the outsiders who would become some of her greatest subjects.
The problem here, both factually and as regards any understanding of the artist’s creative process, is that we see Diane’s vision being imposed on her from outside, rather than coming from her own innate identification with outsiders. Lionel is the deus ex machina that brings Diane her inspiration, her subjects, and, indirectly, her liberation from domestic oblivion. In reality, the figure in Arbus’ life who most closely correlates with Lionel is the photographer Lisette Model, under whom Arbus studied at the New School when she began to break away from commercial photography with Allan and seek a way to express her own unique perspective. Model set the template with her own images of grotesques and human oddities, but she served only as a goad for the direction to which Arbus was naturally inclined.
The film’s version of Arbus is far less self-directed and really not even very interesting. Kidman looks great in the ’50s fashions, but she doesn’t have much to do; the character is written as so mousy and recessive that she barely even registers any reaction to her own supposed artistic awakening. Her (Botoxed?) porcelain features never quite come together to form an actual expression, and Fur never becomes anything more than the story of a love affair between a symbol and a cipher.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | November 19, 2006 | Comments ()