Nicole Kidman has made some brave career choices; some of these choices were both brave and bad (“Birth”), some were just bad (“Bewitched”, “Dogville”). She is clearly an actress willing to take a chance and occasionally, these pay off, providing a delightful, entertaining, unusual experience for the viewer. “Fur”, her new film directed by Steven Shainberg (“Secretary”), is not the best film she has ever been in and it isn’t the worse.
The late 50s. Diane Arbus (Kidman) lives with her husband, Allan (Ty Burrell), and their two daughters, in a large apartment in New York. They have converted part of the apartment into a photography studio and make a handsome living shooting covers for Vogue and ads for her father’s (Harris Yulin) fur shops. But Diane is unhappy and feels that her life is unfulfilled. She no longer finds joy helping load her husband’s camera, or fixing one of the model’s outfits. Allan suggests she take some time off, shoot some photos of her own. One night, she overhears a new neighbor moving in upstairs. Peering out the window, she spots the new tenant, Lionel (Robert Downey Jr.), paying the movers. She is intrigued; Lionel is covered from head to toe in clothing, a crocheted mask covering his face and head. She soon ventures up to his apartment and learns he is covered from head to toe in long hair, fur. Lionel intrigues her and introduces her to a variety of strange people she would never have otherwise met; midgets, giants, people with no arms, Siamese twins, and others you would have to go to the sideshow attractions at a circus to meet, at least during this period. She begins to feel more comfortable around these people, and grows more distant from her husband and children.
“Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus”, directed by Steven Shainberg, is an interesting, highly stylized portrait of perhaps one of the most enigmatic figures in modern art. Very little is known about the photographer; she didn’t talk about herself much and there seems to be a cone of silence around her as little has been said by any family member or friend. So Shainberg, and his screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson, working from a book by Patricia Bosworth, have fashioned a tale out what they were able to find out and attempt to paint a portrait of the influences that would shape what her photographs would become.
This is an interesting idea and helps to provide some idea of the photographer’s life. Lionel is, apparently, completely fictional, and proves as a sort of mentor, introducing her to people and things outside of her comfort zone, taking her out of her upper class New York world and showing her the type of people who would become her subjects.
Kidman’s portrayal of Arbus is very quiet. She goes from housewife and studio assistant, confused about her life, to a more adventurous woman, but still confused about her life. As she becomes more familiar with Lionel, and the people who inhabit his world, her eyes open wider, her smile grows, she seems to become alive. Yet, she also realizes she is drawing further and further away from her husband and children. How can she reconcile the two worlds? She can’t, and she has to make a decision.
Robert Downey Jr. also plays it quiet. He never speaks above a murmur and it is all but impossible to see his facial expressions throughout, as he is covered with fur. As they grow closer, he becomes more involved in her life, more interested in helping her push her boundaries.
The idea of painting a portrait of an artist, imagining what their influences were, is probably not far from what most artist biopics actually accomplish. How can we know what was going through Picasso’s (Anthony Hopkins) head as he painted in “Surviving Picasso”? How can we know what inspired painter Vermeer (Colin Firth) “The Girl With The Pearl Earring”? We can’t, unless they happened to keep detailed journals, and most artists used the canvas as their journal. So, while “Surviving Picasso” and “The Girl With A Pearl Earring” don’t purport to be biographies of the artist’s life, they do try to paint a portrait of these people at work, during specific periods, using real people in their life as characters in the films. “Fur” is not all that different. With the exception of Lionel, most of the film appears to be culled from what little detail could be learned about the enigmatic photographer’s life. The character of Lionel was created as a passport into her life and her world. There is a significant amount of dramatic license used in both types of films, but in “Fur”, the license is overt.
Director Shainberg seems to have a lot of fun depicting the oddball look of New York in the 50s. The guests at a party at the Arbus house and studio seem like they are desperate for any moment of fun, desperate for a laugh, everyone of them smoking, because it is the fashionable thing to do. At one point, Allan is composing the models for an ad and we see a look at what the finished ad might look like and it brilliantly evokes the advertising of this age, six almost identical women, each standing behind an ironing board, each wearing the same clothing, but in different primary colors. Then, as Diane becomes more involved in Lionel’s world, the décor has a more hand me down look, as though everything was purchased at a flea market or garage sale.
While the film is interesting to watch, a certain fairy tale quality is pervasive, the reason behind the central relationship is vague and unsatisfying. I get that Diane is intrigued by Lionel, but the reason for the unhappiness with her husband and her marriage is never really explained. She has a breakdown, but why? Late in the film, she spends a significant amount of time shaving Lionel, revealing the man beneath, essentially erasing the very thing she was attracted to in the first place. “Fur” can’t seem to decide what it wants to say about Diane Arbus’ feelings.
And because feelings are such a huge part of the make-up of most artists, “Fur” doesn’t reveal enough.