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USA 2006
Directed by
Steven Shainberg
120 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars

Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus

Synopsis: It's the late 50s and New Yorker, Diane Arbus (Nicole Kidman), is leading an unfulfilled life as a stylist and assistant to her husband, Allan (Ty Burrell) in their photographic studio and plays the role of loving wife and mother to their two small gilrs. Then a man moves in upstairs moves in upstairs. She is immediately fascinated by the fact that his features are hidden by a mask and one thing leads to another.

"A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know" - Diane Arbus

Fur opens with the notification that it is not a biography but an "imaginary portrait" of the famous photographer. In truth, the film has as much to do with the historical Arbus as Copying Beethoven had to do with ol' Ludwig van. Not that that is a bad thing. In fact, in a good measure, this is quite an intruiging film.

Based on Patricia Bosworth's book Diane Arbus: A Biography, Shainberg, who brought us the off-beat romantic comedy Secretary in 2002, and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson use the bare bones of Arbus's life and her preoccupation with marginalized characters to fantasize a relationship between her and a one-time circus freak.

The film starts off very strongly interweaving a Sirkian image of 50s faux perfection with all the psycho-sexual repression it involved and a Twilight Zone-ish story of strange goings-on upstairs. I'm far from being a fan of Nicole Kidman but she does a fine job of capturing a character both desperate to please and desperate to be free of the guilt that motivates that behaviour. Far less convincing is Robert Downey Jr's portrayal of Lionel, the man who turns her life around. Shainberg has admitted that Jean Cocteau's Beauty And The Beast (1946) was one of the sources of inspiration for this film so perhaps Downey had little choice in his portrayal but he plays his character with an insouciant savoir faire that robs us of any sympathy for him. His infirmity (he suffers from a disease which causes hair to grow all over his body. Readers may also recall Patricia Arquette's similar condition in Michel Gondry's excellent black comedy, Human Nature, 2001) could have been a strong emotional lever in the film. We could empathize with Cocteau's Beast, with his pain and anger and understand Belle's growing fondness for him but Shainberg is here traversing a less permeable barrier between the poetic and the mundane and does not find a balance between the two.

Once Lionel enters the story, aside from the fact that he is unwisely made up to look like a cross between Chewbacca and Lon Chaney's Wolf Man, the film loses its feeling for its material, Shainberg falling back on a display of human oddities and a rather contrived but conventionally-handled romance between Diane and her very hairy friend. He also suggests that Arbus found her true calling in the company of outsiders which, unsurprisingly, form Lionel's circle. This may well have been the case but Kidman shows no change of character as she moves like Alice-in-Wonderland amongst a gaggle of dwarves, deformed people and sex workers. And as for her forbearing husband's response to the bizarre situation, which is to grow a beard, this is just one of the elements of the film which throws it off-balance.

If Fur cannot be regarded as a success, it is not exactly a failure, its mix of real-life and phantasy being, at least comparatively, of sufficient interest to lovers of the off-beat.




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