It had to happen, sooner or later: a bio-pic of Diane Arbus, photographer goddess of the alternate America, doyenne of the somber freakout, selfless voyager into the unorthodox. Arbus’s arc from Eisenhower-era wife, helpmate, and comfortable old-money princess to compulsive underbelly tourist and chronicler of Middle America’s negative image is so super-cool and nicotine-indie programmatic, you wonder why it took this long — why, perhaps, Sean Penn hasn’t already played her in a dress. Even so, that movie, the historically accurate portrait of the artist’s evolution and personal drama, may yet be made. Fur isn’t it, not by a long stretch of blacktop. Even given the stewardship of Steven Shainberg (Secretary), we had no business expecting something this daring, this hare-brained, this absolutely fruity. If you come to the conclusion that the movie falls flat on its face, you can hardly accuse it of not jumping from a risky ledge
IMAGINARY: But it’s not Arbus’s imagination that’s being evoked.
Although inexact as English, “an imaginary portrait” is no understatement; the facts of Arbus’s life are used scantily and as broad symbolic grist. The film says up front that it’s more interested in her “inner experience,” a claim that should set off sirens of half-baked hagiography. Shainberg’s film does something else: it invents a parallel narrative for her transitional years, one that involves a protracted love affair with a circus freak she never met: Lionel the Lion-Faced Man, a Pole inflicted with hypertrichosis (excessive body hair) who worked with the Barnum sideshow and died in 1932. In Erin Cressida Wilson’s hallucinogenic screenplay, Arbus (a breathy, wide-eyed Nicole Kidman) begins to crack under her staid, proper post-war existence (marriage, motherhood, work in her husband’s advertising-photography studio) just as a mysterious masked man (Robert Downey Jr.) moves in above her in a pungently evoked fading–Art Deco Manhattan apartment building.
With its intimations of secret life in the heating ducts and water pipes, the film comes close to promising a pulpy, possibly Lynchian flight of fancy, as in Steven Soderbergh’s underrated Kafka (1991) — Diane Arbus as ersatz middle-class detective investigating the ick beneath the surface of conformist mid-century society. The narrative enters stagnant and troubled waters as Arbus meets the manipulative and completely furry Lionel; she intends to photograph him, but instead she drinks tea with him, has heartfelt talks, takes a pointless bath in her slip, observes a dominatrix, and eventually introduces the urbane hairball to her family. Cocktail parties ensue, in which an armless woman smokes joints with her toes.
You’d have to read Patricia Bosworth’s biography of Arbus to know how her marriage to Allan Arbus actually dissolved (he became a comic actor, in several films directed by Robert Downey Sr.); here, it’s an obsession with the classy, hirsute fellow in the lavishly decorated digs upstairs. That Lionel begins coughing and taking oxygen doesn’t complicate but rather simplifies things — into an inspirational-death melodrama that might not be as silly if it weren’t so absurdly symbolic.
But symbolic of what? Is this dermatologically challenged rake supposed to represent Arbus’s will to create, and/or her desire to transcend her domestic life? It’s a simplistic, childish view of how art is created, just as the posed dichotomy between family life and æsthetic risk is a ludicrous cliché that persists only with frustrated wanna-be artistes who long for the lifestyle more than they are seduced by the work. Fur is “imaginary,” but it’s not Arbus’s imagination that’s being evoked. Arbus never fabricated anything, and she hardly could have appreciated being mythologized into a neo-bohemian Lady Chatterley, blooming sexually over the rough beast her dull social whorl found abhorrent.