If Diane Arbus is an artist whose work has held any importance for you, then here’s the good news that accompanies the release of “Fur,” starring Nicole Kidman as the late photographer: none of Arbus’s photos ever get dragged onscreen, and Kidman’s hazy, de-Semitized performance is such a disconnect from Arbus’s actual image, that the film’s pungency barely pollutes the career it’s intended to tribute.
Coming not long after the closet-cleaning Arbus retrospective “Revelations,” “Fur” is a curious, soporific addition to Arbus’s burgeoning cult of personality. The film, helmed by “Secretary” director Steven Shainberg, lists Patricia Bosworth’s 1984 biography of Arbus as its inspiration, but this adaptation’s hung up on Bosworth’s idea that Diane “view[ed] the world in mythic terms,” which “Fur” takes as a cue to forgo event-based biopic material for speculative magic realism. The result is bound to join the illustrious ranks of Soderbergh’s “Kafka” and Merhige’s “Shadow of the Vampire,” art house screen-fillers reinventing the oft-tedious path to creation as visually extravagant metaphorical journeys, now fondly remembered by literally dozens of viewers.
“Fur” concentrates on that indecisive moment in the late Fifties when Arbus was pulling away from the home studio fashion photography business she’d run for over a decade with her husband, Allan (Ty Burrell, in the film’s best performance). The details surrounding Diane’s marriage are smeared to imply that our heroine’s creative soul’s been carapaced by the expectations of Fifties domesticity — and already uneducated reviewers are buying this reductive story wholesale (the movie further stacks the deck by exaggerating Diane’s marginalized role in the family business). The indies just love to look back in smugness on the Eisenhower era: one of Allan’s fashion shoots, featuring a phalanx of rigidly grinning women manning ironing boards, supplies this film its meaningless nudge of sociology.
A number of people were responsible for abetting Diane’s move from fashion to chronicler of New York’s demimonde–Lisette Model and Joseph Mitchell, among others–but for this film’s purposes, her friends and mentors are compressed into one being: a mysterious, newly arrived upstairs neighbor who she first spies swaddled head-to-toe. Arbus can’t resist the allure of the unknown (Carter Burwell‘s score obnoxiously tip-toes up and down), and before long she’s unmasked Lionel (Robert Downey Jr.), a retired circus dogboy. Downey’s makeup reminds one more of Ron Perlman’s Beast than the intended Jean Marais — the movie’s laced with fairy tale allusions that exist only to congratulate viewer who picks up on them–but regardless, these two outcast souls commiserate, and floodgates of Genius are at great length opened.
Though slim credit is due to “Fur” for showing enough restraint to leave alone the most sensationalistic aspects of Arbus’s life (I’m saying this about a movie that shows her shaving, then fucking a dogman…), there’s just nothing to recommend here. If you insist on seeing a famous life filtered through a fairy tale, I’ll suggest 1985’s “Dreamchild,” which covers the strange case of Lewis Carroll, and which wrings more feeling from one desolate shot of Jim Henson–crafted Mock Turtle than there is in all of “Fur”‘s textured atmospherics.
[Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer and editor and frequent contributor to Stop Smiling.]
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