Mention Diane Arbus' name in a crowded room and you're likely to find that, some 35 years after her barbiturate-induced suicide, opinions still diverge as to whether the influential photographer was a genius or a mere voyeur, a sympathetic eye cast upon society's outcasts or a glorified carnival barker beckoning us into her pictorial sideshow. So it's probably for the best that, in bringing Patricia Bosworth's acclaimed Arbus biography to the screen, director Steven Shainberg and writer Erin Cressida Wilson (who previously collaborated on Secretary) have effectively disposed with Arbus' brilliant career to instead focus on the three-month period preceding her decision to become a professional photographer.
"Imaginary" is the operative word here, as Shainberg and Wilson take fragmentary details from the life of Arbus (Nicole Kidman)—that she was the daughter of a prominent Manhattan furrier; that she assisted her husband, the photographer Allan Arbus (very well played by Ty Burrell), in their home portrait studio—and fold them into a Buuelian dreamscape about "Dee-ann"?'s relationship with her upstairs neighbor (Robert Downey, Jr.), a hirsute circus "freak" who leads her down a rabbit hole of the disfigured and dispossessed, sparking her creative fire.
Furwants to capture on film that most ephemeral of things—the moment at which an artist comes into his or her own sense of being an artist—though its ideas on the subject aren't always profound. I for one cringed during the scene of Arbus sitting on a bus, itemizing a list of potential subjects (nudists—check, Siamese twins—check, check) in her journal. But much of the film is as strange and oddly beautiful as one of Arbus' own photographs, bold in its attempt to find new ways of cracking the biopic chestnut and sensitive in its portrayal of a 1950s woman who, like so many of her contemporaries, finds herself imprisoned in a Good Housekeeping nightmare.
Kidman, ever adventurous in her choice of roles, is surprisingly the weak link here—she looks and sounds the part, and yet there's something too studied and remote, too passive about her Arbus. Some will say that she's merely playing a woman who felt detached from her own life; I would argue that she is a talented actress who has failed to find the center of a difficult role. Downey, however, is remarkable, suppressing his trademark jitters and ticks and delivering a performance of heartbreaking sensitivity, no matter that he spends almost all of his screen time staring out from behind a forest of head-to-toe body hair. Proof, as any good photographer knows, that the eyes truly are the windows to the soul.
FUR: AN IMAGINARY PORTRAIT OF DIANE ARBUS WAS DIRECTED BY STEVEN SHAINBERG; WRITTEN BY ERIN CRESSIDA WILSON, BASED ON PATRICIA BOSWORTH'S BOOK DIANE ARBUS; AND PRODUCED BY BOSWORTH, LAURIE BICKFORD, ANDREW FIERBERG, WILLIAM POHLAD AND BONNIE TIMMERMAN. AT MANN RANCHO NIGUEL, LAGUNA NIGUEL; AND ART THEATRE, LONG BEACH.
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