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Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus

Beauty and the Beast

Directed by Steven Shainberg (Secretary) and written by Erin Cressida Wilson, Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus is, as the title suggests, a highly fictionalized exploration of photographer Diane Arbusí life during a life-transforming three-month period in 1958. During that period, Arbus turned away from her upper-middle class life and family and fully embraced a future that would recognize her as one of the most influential twentieth century photographers. In fictionalizing Arbusí life through an equally fictionalized romantic relationship, however, Fur offers little insight into Arbusí transformation from housewife to creative artist.

Diane Arbus (Nicole Kidman) arrives at a nudist colony, hoping to take portraits of the nudists, but before she can, she has to win their trust. Rewinding three months, we meet Arbus in New York City, a housewife, mother, and photography assistant to her husband, Allan (Ty Burrell), a well-respected commercial/fashion photographer. Arbus also comes from a wealthy family. Not surprisingly, her wealthy parents, David (Harris Yulin) and Gertrude (Jane Alexander), offer Arbus little support and a great deal of criticism. Although marginally unhappy, Arbus still manages to fulfill her multiple roles until a new tenant, Lionel Sweeney (Robert Downey Jr.), moves in upstairs and promptly begins to shake things up.

With his head and face covered in a Mexican-wrestling style mask, the mysterious Lionel excites Arbusí interest, leaving tantalizing clues for the curious Arbus to pick up, eventually inviting her to his apartment. At first interested in Lionel solely as a subject for one of her portraits, Arbus becomes attracted to Lionelís emotional vulnerability and openness, the result of being a lifelong outsider due to a genetic condition. Lionel also introduces Arbus to his friends and acquaintances, all of them equally marginalized from mainstream society. While outside the mainstream, Lionelís friends have formed a strongly knit community that welcomes Arbus uncritically. Meanwhile, her relationship with her husband and two daughters, Grace (Emmy Clarke) and Sophie (Genevieve McCarthy) suffers.

While the fairytale-like storyline and setting hints at psychological psychosexual complexity, there isnít any. Scratch below the surface and all youíll find is a standard issue doomed love/flowering creativity storyline that weíve seen countless times before, but with a head-scratching twist.

Little did we know when we entered the theater that Fur retells the ďBeauty and the BeastĒ fairytale, almost literally. Lionelís apartment, reachable only by a spiral staircase and, later, by a door in the floor, is filled with objects, talismans, and contraptions that signal his uniqueness and separateness from Arbusí everyday world. That Arbusí unfulfilling domestic life will lead into a romantic relationship with Lionel is all but given, as is Arbusí artistic and sexual awakening. Even accepting that much, however, doesnít bring us any closer to explaining what motivated Arbusí creative process and, presumably, creative genius.

In fact, the conventional doomed love affair leads us further away from understanding Arbusí inner life or creative journey. The Arbus that emerges from Fur is a slightly naÔve, sheltered woman constrained by social and sexual conventions (a standard in any depiction of 1950s America on film) whose interest in photographing outsiders comes from a self-perception of herself as an outsider with unconventional tastes and interests, primarily sexual (e.g., voyeurism, exhibitionism). That Arbus feels empathy, sympathy, even compassion for her subjects brings us a step closer, but not much further, in understanding what drove and inspired Arbusí passion and her art, primarily because Fur focuses on Arbusí relationship with Lionel to the detriment of everything else.

Performance wise, Kidman gives another impeccably nuanced performance, maximizing the materialís limited potential to give us a glimpse of Arbusí inner life. With his face all but unrecognizable, Downey Jr. is forced to act through his eyes, physical gestures, and voice inflections. Downey, Jr. uses all three to convey his characterís emotional isolation and anguish. Likewise with Ty Burrell supporting turn as Arbusí slowly unraveling husband, Allan, and Harris Yulin and Jane Alexander as Arbusí uncomprehending, high society parents. Ultimately, though, Kidman, Downey Jr., and the rest of the cast deserved better from Shainberg and Wilson. We did too.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars