The Reeler


November 10, 2006

Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus

Director Shainberg showcases Kidman's portrait -- at his subject's expense

I don't know what kind of voodoo Nicole Kidman uses on her directors, but it seems that lately one can't escape a Kidman film without being subjected, at great length and in extreme close-up, to each precious flicker behind her jumbo marble eyes and weighted flutter at the corners of her lacquered lips. Steven Shainberg, the director of Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, has followed in the besotted footsteps of Lars Von Trier (Dogville), Anthony Minghella (Cold Mountain) and Jonathan Glazer (Birth) in casting Kidman as the celebrated photographer: He nips at her every blink, breath and footstep with adoring attention.

It becomes difficult, then, to separate these constant lapses into iconography from the supposed portrait, imaginary or no -- which is somewhat ironic in a film that purports to explore a woman's journey from pressed and proper 2-D housewife into a 3-D artist and human being, who in turn longed to flatten and freeze her subjects just so. The machinations of Kidman's eyebrows, spectacular though they may be, do not a portrait make, though when we catch her vehemently tweezing away a stray, the heights of order and repression from which she will tumble are neatly established. Shainberg uses some biographical material from Arbus' life (he could not get access to her photos), including her rich, furrier father, cold, depressive mother and glossy magazine photographer husband, but the focus is on the imagined inner life that led Arbus from the cool bosom of privilege into the messy arms of her muse.

Finding your muse is a lot easier, it turns out, when he moves in upstairs. The reliably, tragically impish Robert Downey Jr. plays Lionel, a freak show retiree enjoying the good life for as long as he can (a degenerative lung disease, or possibly the cruel, airless world, is slowly making it impossible for him to breathe), and using the thick pelt of hair covering his entire body to craft wigs for the hairless. Fur tells the story of Arbus' fascination with Lionel, whom she confronts through a peephole after pulling fistfuls of his hair out of her drain, and how the symbiotic relationship they develop sparks her interest in both fringe elements and catch-and-release photography. The sexual awakening between Arbus and Lionel feels rather tacked on to the creative one, right from the pervy pop-quiz he gives her in lieu of introductions. The Alice in Wonderland outfits and Beauty and the Beast overtones are laid on pretty thick; once Kidman louche-ens up and hauls out her breathiest Monroe, the whole thing is more cartoon than kink.

The idea of growth as metaphor truly runs wild in Fur, until the thicketry of meaning and subtext becomes more dense than meaningful, and your attention is stopped, finally, at the surface of Nicole Kidman's placid full moon of a face. As a conceit, the "imaginary portrait" is an admirable one, but Fur doesn't pull it off with any conviction; what it forgets is that all biopics are imaginary portraits, and to succeed on their own terms the audience must want to -- or be allowed to -- sign on.

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