In what might be called a shaggy dog story for adults, but one that takes itself much too seriously, Nicole Kidman plays Diane Arbus at the critical moment in the late 1950s when she began to move away from her traditional role as a supportive wife and loving mother to that for which she would become well known, as an innovative photographer of the bizarre and of the ordinary made bizarre. The subtitle to Steven Shainberg’s “Fur” makes it clear that the movie isn’t intended as a standard-issue biography but rather a fantastical account of her transformation from fifties hausfrau to creative artist. But even if one is willing to accept the leap from personal history to imaginative fiction with a real figure at the center–and the result that it really tells you nothing factual about the artist’s development or her style–the film goes off on a trajectory that’s so pretentiously, and turgidly, dramatized that rather than ending up as enlightening it borders on the risible.
The conceit that Shainberg and writer Erin Cressida Wilson have come up with is that Arbus’ embrace of her calling was occasioned by her encounter with a mysterious upstairs neighbor named Lionel Sweeney (Robert Downey, Jr.). Lionel, it seems, suffers from disease that leaves him so covered with hair that when he goes out in public, it’s heavily masked. (He looks rather like Claude Rains did in “The Invisible Man,” except in color.) Meeting him shortly after hosting a fashion show in her apartment showcasing the new designs of her snooty parents (Harris Yulin and Jane Alexander), high-class furriers, she’s entranced by this even furrier fellow, especially since he seems destined to release her creative side by prodding her imagination and introducing her to the company of his sideshow-freak stable of friends. Their relationship deepens until she not only begins photographing him and introducing him to her family and friends, but develops a deep emotional attachment to him. And when she finds that he’s in the final stages of a terminal respiratory ailment, he helps him fulfill his final wish–to lose himself in the ocean rather than wait for his illness to engulf him–by shaving him so that he can go to the beach looking “normal.”
Lionel’s suicide, which is portrayed as a final act of self-realization, is presumably intended as a foreshadowing of Arbus’ own, which occurred some years later. And the long sequence that depicts the shaving is obviously intended to have a languidly erotic tone. But this take on the meaning behind her life (and death) comes across as misguided in a couple of ways. On the one hand, it suggests that Arbus made the extraordinary subjects she photographed “normal” in some sense. But she didn’t. Her photos not only preserved but accentuated their peculiarity. And by portraying Lionel’s suicide in exhilarating terms, the picture cheats, since though it seems to want to imply a similar sense of exaltation to Diane’s, it never even mentions the event, apparently presuming viewers will be aware of it; and as a result it can’t even begin to explain how it might be depicted in such an elevated way.
If the center of “Fur” is ultimately unsatisfactory, however, there are impressive incidentals. The style is all of a piece, with Bill Pope’s elegant cinematography producing moody compositions that suggest the glossy photos in fifties magazines and complement Shainberg’s deliberate, stately (some will say sluggish) approach. Carter Burwell’s evocative score contributes considerably to the atmosphere. And the leads respond eagerly to the challenges posed by their roles. Kidman, once again taking risks in her choice of parts, is hardly the ideal Arbus from the physical standpoint, but she tries to capture the depths of a woman uncertain of her feelings and desires; if the result comes across as more studied than revealing, that’s more the fault of the director’s often ponderous approach than the actress. Downey, using the same control of movement that served him so well in “Chaplin” and his smooth voice (much as Rains did), fashions a charismatic figure despite the fact that for most of the running-time, one can see only his eyes clearly. He’s so good, in fact, that he becomes the picture’s real center; despite the title, Arbus is ultimately confined to the dramatic periphery.
And that, ultimately, is the basic flaw of the film. It may be imaginative, but the essential promise is that what it imagines will reveal something important about the artist to us. In the end, though, Shainberg’s picture doesn’t. It’s intriguing but ponderous, evocative without ultimately telling us very much about its subject. In short, it’s an interesting experiment, but a failed one.