Diane Arbus was a New York photographer who rose to fame with her unique portraits of unusual subjects — “freaks” was the term she used, with utter reverence — including dwarfs and giants, transsexuals and nudists. Sound tame? It wasn’t in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when Arbus took her freaks and put them center-stage, daring an audience weaned on all-American normalcy to look them in the eyes.
“Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus” is not terribly concerned with the details of Arbus’ life and death — she committed suicide in 1971. Instead it attempts to capture what it supposes to have been her essence, as well as her taste for the exotic and the little known. On that count it succeeds. As Arbus, Nicole Kidman delivers a subtle, understated performance that captures her character’s transformation from repressed, sexually unfulfilled housewife to daring, liberated woman. Early on, she joylessly performs her duties as assistant to her fashion-photographer husband, Allan (Ty Burrell). By the end, she is a confident solo act, more or less, on her path to becoming, according to the film, one of the 20th century’s great artists.
Director Steven Shainberg is content to show us the journey, but only alludes to the destination. Here, he and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson, the creative forces behind 2002’s “Secretary,” present their subject’s sexual and spiritual awakening as the empowering device that spurs her creative growth, using Lionel (Robert Downey Jr.) as the catalyst. Lionel is the mysterious guy next door who wears a mask — with good reason, since he suffers from hypertrichosis, which causes excessive hair growth. Think Chewbacca, or the Beast to Kidman’s Beauty.
Diane is instinctively drawn to Lionel, perhaps because he falls so far outside the circle of her family’s high-society friends, and because his very existence defies any concept of normal. He is a freak, yes, but he’s not lacking for self-confidence. At his urging, Diane immerses herself in his bizarre world, meeting the kinds of fringe characters who would later appear in her most famous photographs. In the process, she finds her independence, in more ways than one.
In “Fur,” Shainberg and Wilson have once again crafted an intriguing tale about a woman’s sexual liberation at the hands of a dominant male, and indeed, there are obvious similarities (none of them physical) between Lionel and James Spader’s
sadist lawyer in “Secretary.” Yet that film was driven by a subversive sense of danger, something sorely lacking here. There’s plenty of tension in “Fur,” stemming mostly from the awkward love triangle between Diane, Lionel and the beleaguered Allan, but not enough weirdness.
Perhaps because of her eagerness to embrace the strange and exotic, the real-life Arbus became just as famous for rendering even mundane images in such a way as to seem freakish. Shainberg’s film makes the freakish — and Arbus herself — seem unusually tame.
Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus ??½
Starring Nicole Kidman, Robert Downey, Jr.
Written by Erin Cressida Wilson and Patricia Bosworth
Directed by Steven Shainberg
Running time 122 minutes