I watched Fur (Picturehouse), Steven Shainberg’s fantasy biopic about photographer Diane Arbus, in a slowly mounting state of rage. At first it was more just mild annoyance at the casting of WASPy Nicole Kidman as the Jewish Arbus. But as the story progressed and Kidman’s character (who, according to the film’s disclaimer, is only loosely based on the real Arbus’ “inner experience”) began falling in love with her freakishly hirsute neighbor, Lionel Sweeney (Robert Downey Jr.), my irritation progressed through contempt, eye-rolling, and, finally, a dull despair illuminated only by the imminent prospect of dinner.
That’s the best thing that can be said about Fur: It feels good when it’s over, and if you see it with a smart friend, it’s a blast to hash over afterward. Shainberg’s first feature, Secretary (2002), took its characters’ perversion in stride in an almost jaunty ode to sadomasochism. But Fur is far too impressed with its own weirdness. In essence, it’s a domestic drama about a cheating 1950s housewife that uses Arbus’ life as a stylish accessory (a fur stole?) to drape around its threadbare shoulders.
In her discussion of Shainberg’s portrait of the artist, Mia Fineman pretty much covers the Arbus-as-accessory angle, as well as nicely summarizing the film’s story. So, I’ll just note, by way of observation, that the movie’s style and mood are the opposite of Arbus’ own starkly unsentimental work. Everything in the movie is laboriously pretty. The general atmosphere is Gothic in the style of Twin Peaks: Fetishized freaks are tossed here and there for accent, like throw pillows, while a relentless score by Carter Burwell keeps reminding us how to feel about each moment: Spooked! Tender! Erotically transported!
Whence the rage? Perhaps it was the way the script’s subtle misogyny, which relegates Arbus’ work to the realm of personal liberation, tries to pass itself off as feminism. As the film re-imagines Arbus’ career, she begins to take pictures only when given permission to explore her dark side by the wounded Lionel. The problem with this vision of the real Arbus’ life isn’t that it’s myth; it’s that it’s crap. In the film, art is, in the end, something Arbus makes to please her cool new boyfriend, a kind of mix tape on photographic paper. Even her choice of subject matter to photograph—the castoffs of society, giants, freaks, and amputees—doesn’t come from Arbus’ own deliberative process. These just happen to be the people in her sweetie’s peer group, and after all, they are pretty punk-rock looking, what with the armlessness and all.
Nicole Kidman, an actress I usually find endlessly surprising, even in bad movies, seems uncharacteristically content to fall back on her (amazing) looks. She gives a princessy performance, full of doe-eyed gazes and trembling lips, but she does wear the hell out of some gorgeous ‘50s dresses. It’s a Gwyneth Paltrow kind of performance, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. And there’s no one more capable of projecting a tormented inner life than Robert Downey Jr., but what director in his right mind takes an actor this expressive and hides his face under a solid mask of foot-long hair? Not since Jim Carrey in The Grinch has an actor been so hampered by his own makeup. Downey is reduced to a pair of eyes (admittedly, wonderfully sad ones) and a voice which, for some reason, delivers lines in the breathy stop-start diction of John Malkovich.
The set representing Lionel’s apartment is a good index of Fur’s thoroughgoing phoniness. It’s art directed to within an inch of its life, yet we have no idea what each of its elements—the fresco-blue wall plaster stylishly pocked with holes, the sunken swimming pool of a bathtub—has to say about Lionel’s taste or history. It looks like a chicly decrepit SoHo design store—the kind of pretentious place that, just to punch up the atmosphere, might hang a couple of framed prints of Diane Arbus portraits.