FUR: an imaginary portrait of Diane Arbus

Nicole Kidman in FURThere’s something playful, or willfully perverse, about casting one of the world’s most spectacularly photogenic actresses in the role of a photographer — essentially recasting the object as subject even as the movie camera lingers on her good looks. Here’s FUR: an imaginary portrait of Diane Arbus, as much a spiritual sequel to Secretary as an Alice in Wonderland twist on Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast. Here’s a dodgy biopic from filmmakers who worked up the gumption to take on the Diane Arbus story in order to explore a peculiar fascination with all the things that are suggested by the Arbus biography: a fascination with outsiders; a seething, well-hidden dissatisfaction with the role of a housewife in 1950s New York; and an indulgent, searching sensuality hidden just below those primly belted housewife dresses.

Directed by Steven Shainberg and written by Erin Cressida Wilson, who also scripted Shainberg’s Secretary, FUR imagines Diane Arbus in thrall to her mysterious upstairs neighbor, who arrives in the building under cover of night and wearing a loose sack of a mask very much in the Elephant Man mode. Turns out the man is a hairy fellow, freakishly different but not at all grotesque. Well groomed. Schooled in the ways of the world. Diane goes upstairs with the idea of photographing him — her husband has lately been lamenting that his gift to her of a camera has only been gathering dust (and here the movie may be warning too-comfortable husbands everywhere to be careful what they wish for, at least if they make the wish out loud).

Diane doesn’t take any pictures, but she does get caught up in the lion-man’s world. (In a cute detail, his name is Lionel.) For Lionel, being in Diane’s presence seems to be a little like target practice. At first, he comes on as the sexual aggressor, making bold demands (she demurs) and probing her psyche a la Hannibal Lecter (perhaps sensing a certain capacity for liberation, she assents to the investigation). After his early overtures are handled gracefully — and when Diane does not appear to have been frightened away — he settles in for the long haul, taking her out on the town and introducing her to a cohort of misfits. (Some scenes have an off-the-map-nightclub feel not completely unlike that other parable of sexual awareness and awakenings, Shortbus.) She takes to them.

One of the movie’s problems is that Diane doesn’t have much of a thawing out period — suddenly we see her lounging around, devil may care and in colorful clothing to boot. She’s worked up the nerve to parade her new friends downstairs into her own apartment through a hole in the ceiling, introducing them to her husband as if he were nowhere near as square as he is. Character development seems more like something pre-ordained than organic growth, and Kidman can’t carry the whole thing on her shoulders.

Speaking of Kidman, she looks terrific, and is effective in a gentle, searching role — she functions as a sort of empathy dispenser. Her face is seen through frames inside frames as she peers through a tiny doorway, or as it is glimpsed from the other side of a peephole. Arbus herself is portrayed as a mite of an exhibitionist, stepping onto her Manhattan balcony and ripping her dress open to expose her undergarments to a neighbor. (OK, maybe not that much of an exhibitionist, given the bulky, opaque style of undergarment she favors.) In the opening scene (FUR subscribes to that common gambit of framing the film’s main narrative as a flashback), having arrived to photograph nudes at a nudists’ resort, she is challenged to undress — and under these circumstances that question seems posed as much to the actress as it is to the character. She’s fun to watch in a movie that plays liberally with the idea of picture-taking.

Similarly gentle is Robert Downey Jr. who, after his first-date shenanigans, settles down to be revealed as an articulate, urbane softy. Lionel slowly teases out the artist inside of Diane, giving her time and stimulus to reach a kind of inner maturity before taking a shot at expressing herself through photographs. Where the character could have been bestial or skeevy, Shainberg and Wilson have opted instead to make him handsome. He’s more Chewbacca than the Wolf Man, more a beloved furry companion than the kind of man you’d cross the street to avoid. He’s much more appealing in his hairy glory than he is with that rather alarming mask on — and maybe we’re meant to believe that we’re seeing him as he appears inside Diane’s head, a near-perfect specimen.

Maybe the problem is that there’s too little in these characters. Maybe it’s that old biopic dilemma of building a revelatory drama around the existing schematic of a real person’s life — even though FUR is full of manufactured characters and rife with poetic license, the film is a dreamy, complimentary piece that’s obviously made by fans. (Bill Pope’s cinematography and Amy Danger’s production design are both rich and enticing, which helps keep the whole film as engaging as it is.) I’m not sure the film ever comes close to casting real light on her work, the starkness of light and shadow, the choice of subject, her capacity to catch her subjects in the most extraordinary ordinary moments. (None of her actual photography appears in the film, which could be a conscious decision or a failure of diplomacy with the Arbus estate.) Suggesting that Arbus’s fascination with outsiders and nominal “freaks” springs from a single tragic love affair feels hopelessly romantic and hopelessly reductive. But though FUR becomes distended as second act grinds toward third, there is something honestly moving, just, in the film’s final scenes where she must say goodbye to her beloved Lionel. It feels contrived for sure — but if the film’s real subject is to be the relationship between the creative mind of one artist (Shainberg) and the life’s work of another, contrivance is a defensible way to illustrate it. Whether or not you care, particularly, about that relationship probably depends on your sensibility. I’m guessing those who found Secretary playful and provocative will feel a kinship with FUR, flawed and shallow as it is; those who found the earlier film reductive and offensive will find this one a disrespectful and hopelessly minor-league effort.

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