Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus–Biopic Starring Nicole Kidman And Robert Downey, Jr.

An original but severely flawed film, “Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus,” aims to illuminate the career of Diane Arbus, one of America’s most celebrated photographers.

The tale centers on one crucial encounter between the eccentric, disturbed artist (played by Nicole Kidman) and a fictional character named Lionel (Robert Downey, Jr.), a misfit who helps Diane channel her demons into art.

Though admirably defying the conventions of Hollywood artistic biopics, with all the clichs that go with it, even on its own terms “Fur,” as directed by Steven Shainberg and scripted by Erin Cressida Wilson, is unsatisfying on many levelscall it an honorable failure.

To begin with, the narrative is vastly under-populated (its basically a two-hour two-character drama) and too narrow in scope to truly shed light on Arbus’ metamorphosis from an upper-class housewife (a married woman and mom to two young daughters) to an idiosyncratic artist, haunted by lifelong anxieties (many of which are sexual) that might have shaped her work.

Making things worse is central performance by Nicole Kidman, who’s in each and every scene. Truth to tell, she is miscast. After a long creative period of interesting and versatile performances, Kidman shows her limitations, exacerbated with being misguided by helmer Shainberg’s conception. Though capable of changing physique, with short black hair (“Birth”), or long dark hair here, a level of sameness and repetition has defined her interpretations. (More about Kidman below).

That said, on a visual level, “Fur” is sumptuously crafted, indicating some progress of Shainberg in the technical aspects of filmmaking, after the inept noir “Hit Me” and the more successful but modest “Secretary.” Shainberg no doubt benefits from the picture’s budget, which is bigger from that allotted to his previous endeavors. He’s assisted here by the brilliant cinematographer Bill Pope and equally brilliant composer Carter Burwell, resulting in a film whose visual look and production design are impressive and haunting– if only the narrative, characterization, and acting matched that level of execution

Since “Fur” is a conceptual work the faults lie with the limited, unsatisfying script. (“Secretary, which was well-acted by Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader, suffered from the same problem since it was also written by Erin Cressida Wilson).

A title card informs, “This is not a historical biography of Diane Arbus,” which helps those viewers in the theater. Question is, how does the entrepreneurial Picturehouse convey this notion to potential viewers who will naturally assume that “Fur” is a biopic of sorts.

Narratively speaking, “Fur” comes across as another variation of the mythic fable, “Beauty and the Beast,” a yarn that has been done by French (Jean Cocteau’s 1946 poetic black-and-white version is brilliant) and American filmmakers, from the various adaptation of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” all the way to Disney’s 1991 animation feature. Here, Arbus-Beauty is played by the tall and regal Kidman, and the “Beast” is embodied by Robert Downey Jr. as a man whose whole body is covered with hair, suffering from genetic deficiencies. As such, “Fur” brings to mind David Lynch’s “The Elephant Man,” which was also a variation of “Beauty and the Beast,” one set in Victorian England.

Conceptually, it must have been intriguing to view “Fur” as a modern version of “Alice in Wonderland,” with Kidman’s Arbus running up and down the staircase, from her upscale Manhattan apartment to the wonderland that Lionel’s milieu represents in his attic. The filmmakers use the act of peeping, the looking glass, the door hole and key, the secret ladder that connects between the two levels (and worlds), and even a rabbit as recurrent visual and verbal motifs that make explicit allusions to Lewis Carroll’s seminal literary work, which continues to inspire artists in various fields.

Much as an actual Arbus photograph transport us into strange, unfamiliar worlds, “Fur” aims at traveling through the looking glass to explore the transformation of a shy woman into a powerful visionary artist. However, if the inspiration for the film is impressive and its goals clear, the minimal storytelling, one-sided characterizations, and Kidman’s acting leave much to be desired.

Shainberg and Wilson have conjured “Fur” not as a biopic but as something more original and mysterious, intertwining real aspects of Arbus’ life with invented characters and imaginary text. In theory, it’s an innovative way to approach the portrayal of a historically important person. In practice, however, “Fur” strives to but doesn’t succeed in paying tribute to a brilliant artistic talent that challenged the notions of what’s beauty and ugliness in art, forever changing the medium of photography with her eccentric subjects and radical techniques.

Loosely inspired by the book “Diane Arbus: A Biography,” written in 1984 by Patricia Bosworth (who’s one of the producers), the film is book-ended by Diane Arbus’ visit to a nudist camp. After a brief prologue, the tale flashes back to a crucial period in 1958 to find Diane as a devoted wife and mother, whose innate talents and dark obsessions seem to be profoundly at odds with the conventional life she leads in Manhattan’s Upper East Side with her husband Allan (Ty Burrell)

As the story opens, some wealthy furriers gather at the Arbus Family Photography Studio and home for a fashion show of the latest furs from Russek’s, the posh Fifth Avenue department store run by Diane’s father. It proves to be a stressful event for Diane, a housewife who works as an assistant to her husband, a fashion and advertising photographer.

The delicate, gold-leafed chairs must be neatly aligned, the models must be styled to perfection, and Diane and her daughters must be immaculately turned out for the occasion in their best dresses and Ruussek’ furs. The correctness of the Arbuses’ behavior is appraised not only by the snotty crowd, but also by Diane’s parents, Russek proprietors’ Gertrude (Jane Alexander) and David Nemerov (Harris Yulin).

The Nemerovs employ the Arbuses to photograph the store’s ads, but it is a barbed form of patronage. Having raised Diane to be part of their privileged class, they observe everything she does with a critical eye, commenting on any mistake or breach of protocol. (To have a distinguished actress like Alexander in the cast and to turn her into a stereotypically shrill, castrating mom is inexcusable on Shainberg’s part).

Though trying her best to disguise it, Diane is as uncomfortable and restless. It’s an unease that lies just beneath the surface of her orderly, respectable life, ready to be unleashed. And indeed, something crucial happens that night. While the rich furriers examine the new fashion line. Diane observes a team of movers uploading a large truck, and then carry some odd furniture and possessions inside up the stairs of her building. Diane’s eye is caught by a strange-looking red mask, the size of a man’s head, who turns out to be her new neighbor Lionel. He is bundled up in coat and hat, his face obscured by a scarf and mask. Only his intense eyes are visible, frankly returning Diane’s intriguing gaze. An immediate bond is established between these two outcasts.

Most of the narrative is set during a short period of timetwo weeksduring which Diane becomes first keenly interested, then downright obsessed with Lionel’s comings and goings, his footsteps on the stairs, the music playing from his attic apartment. Assuming the courage of a bold visitor, the voyeuristic Diane dashes upstairs. Through a series of recurrent encounters, some of which prolonged and dull, she’s presumably changing a dramatically changed woman.

I wish Shainberg had gone deeper and darker in depicting the perverse, decadent, and freakish milieu. A director like David Lynch, who’s better suited for such material, would have done it effortlessly. As it is, I detected the influence of Fellini (around the time of “Satyricon,” “Roma,” and “The Clowns”) on the film’s visual aspects, from the production design to the very last scene, set on a beautiful day by the ocean, with Lionel and Diane in their long white underwear, framed against the vast horizon.

Not a particularly sensitive director, Shainberg makes a number of gross errors in his mise-en-scene. Surprisingly, for a director who pulled off tricky erotic (S&M) material in “Secretary” with ease and charm, he stumbles with the staging of most of the sexual scenes. In a climactic encounter, Lionel asks Diane to shave his hair, but what should have been erotically charged becomes tedious.

And I think he has misdirected (or at least not helped) Kidman, an elegantly detached, self-contained actress to begin with, who has always had problems with projecting erotic appeal and ripe sexuality. Thais was the problem of Kidman’s interpretations in Jane Campion’s “Portrait of a Lady,” Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut,” in which shockingly there’s was no rapport between her and then husband Tom Cruise, and most recently in “The Human Stain,” in which she played a voluptuous farm woman! It’s also an insurmountable problem in “Fur.”

Since sexuality, dark, perverse sexuality–as a young girl and mature woman Diane likes to expose and touch herself by the window–is a major part of the story, the whole film suffers. The unconventional sexual scene, anal intercourse, between Diane and her husband is another misfire.

Unfortunately, Shainberg resorts to a kitschy, borderline risible, scene, when Diane and Lionel go to the Ocean on a beautiful day to execute a fateful act (that can’s be disclosed here) at the end of which Diane in a cleansing, cathartic mood, lies on the beach and caresses the water; I wish these preposterous shots would have landed on the editing room’s floor.

Playing an extremely demanding role that call for psychological, physical, emotional, sexual challenges, Robert Downey Jr. is the best thing in the film. Downey Jr. is utterly credible as Lionel, the enigmatic, sickly new neighbor who launches Diane on her journey to becoming the artist she is meant to be.

As noted, “Fur” is an honorable and ambitious failure. What should have been a scarier, touching, and disturbing tale of self-discovery, both artistic and personal, is reduced to a series of intensely intimate encounters between two sexually repressed misfits. Ultimately, the picture sheds little light on Diane Arbus as a woman or an artist, driven by mysteriously profound needs to create idiosyncratic art and to explore alternate lifestyle that deviates from the one allotted to her by the 1950s conservative American society.

End note

Born in 1923, Diane Arbus committed suicide in 1971, at the prime of her career, while she was becoming an icon in the art world. The Metropolitan Museum exhibited earlier this year a major portion of her photography.