Do artists actually see more than ordinary people? That's what my high-school art teacher thought. So, apparently, does Nicole Kidman -- or at least that's the way she plays Diane Arbus (1923-71) in the celebrated photographer's exceedingly curious "imaginary portrait," Fur.
Kidman acted around a prosthetic proboscis to win an Oscar for her impersonation of Virginia Woolf in The Hours; as Arbus, she's all eyes. Menacingly demure, she stares down the camera as though miming the X-ray vision of the photographer's gaze.
Arbus "could insinuate anguish, kinkiness, mental illness with any subject," Susan Sontag unkindly observed. Everybody that Arbus photographed became a freak; that was the source of her particular genius. Fur has little interest in making the normal seem freakish; unlike Arbus, the movie benignly does the opposite. Physically, the fair-skinned and willowy Kidman is an unlikely choice to play the dark, diminutive Arbus. But the actress is far from the only curiosity in director Steven Shainberg's cabinet -- a misguided tribute to the woman his film identifies among "the greatest artists of the twentieth century" (and whose photographs, per Fur's press notes, lined the walls of the Manhattan townhouse where he grew up).
Hardly a straight bio-pic -- albeit co-produced by Arbus biographer Patricia Bosworth -- Fur was written by Erin Cressida Wilson, who invents all manner of characters and situations to explicate the three-month period in 1958 when Arbus ceased to be her husband Allan Arbus's studio assistant and became a photographer in her own right. Initially, she's imprisoned in A-line skirts and Peter Pan collars, pathetically attempting to please her high-powered father (Harris Yulin), a Park Avenue furrier, and cold, judgmental mother (Jane Alexander in the movie's scariest performance). Hubby is sympathetic in the condescending '50s mode: "Maybe you could take a class, Diane."
Taking a class is what the actual Arbus did (studying with the German street photographer Lisette Model). But that's not the process Shainberg and Wilson have in mind. Arbus is monstrously depressed, repressed, oppressed and alone. "Even our children think I'm strange," she whispers to Allan (Ty Burrell). As well they might. When her parents take over her studio for their annual fashion show, complete with leashed ocelot, a humiliated Diane flees to the fire escape. There she spots a mysterious masked man on the street and attracts his attention by unbuttoning her bodice.
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Two weeks later, Diane receives a return call. She's distracted mid-shoot -- a half-dozen smiling model housewives providing Shainberg's most surreal tableau -- because something has clogged her plumbing. Thus the movie enters the world of metaphor by way of Alice in Wonderland and Jean Cocteau. Along with a tangle of animal hair, a key tumbles from the water pipe, and Diane is inspired to photograph the strange fellow upstairs. His apartment of mystery turns out to be an annex of a Times Square flea circus; it presages Arbus's trademark subject matter, even as the baroque clutter is the antithesis of her straightforward mise-en-scne.
The master of this domain is as adorably hirsute as a Wookiee. Lionel (Robert Downey Jr.) doesn't suffer from hypertrichosis so much as revel in it, like a model in mink. He also provides Diane's entree into a warm and cuddly sideshow underworld. "This is terrific," she whispers unconvincingly, watching a naked submissive dancing with a leather-corseted dominatrix. "Look at his socks!" Downey, alternately haughty and beseeching, flirts coyly from behind a forest of facial hair. No less than Kidman, he acts with his eyes -- although, given his makeup, he's more or less obliged to. Around the time Lionel confides that he's spent his life looking for a "real freak" (and poor Alan defensively grows a beard), Diane manages to open a passage to Lionel's and throw a party for all the once and future denizens of her photographs.
"Most people go through life dreading they'll have a traumatic experience," the real Arbus famously said. "Freaks were born with their traumas...they're aristocrats." Fur takes this as the basis for a fairy-tale Beauty and the Beast. Labored magic realism aside, the movie closely resembles Shainberg's 2002 Secretary. That dark comedy of psychosexual pathology, which Wilson expanded from Mary Gaitskill's terse account of workplace S&M, gave Maggie Gyllenhaal a star-making turn as a fragile creature in the employ of James Spader's stern lawyer. Their waltz of mutual disinhibition whipped a potentially grotesque case history into a romantic love story; Fur uses a similar tale of successfully sublimated masochism to dramatize Arbus's artistic awakening. In this case, though, the scenario is both foolishly allegorical and painfully literal-minded.
Of course, the heroine's awakening could also be read as a torturous nervous breakdown, despite the feel-good ending. But Fur isn't really about Diane Arbus. The photographer suggested that the camera gave her permission to transgress, and Kidman's choice of roles follows the same logic, but without the same success. You won't learn much about Arbus, aside from the correct pronunciation of her first name; you will get to see Kidman try (and fail) to find her inner freak.