© 2006 Ray Wong
Diane Arbus was arguably one of the most influential and brilliant, well-loved photographers of our time. Her personal background, struggles, and eventual death at her prime have intrigued many. In Fur, the filmmakers decide to create a fictional account of Diane's life to reflect on her internal struggles and inspiration. It's definitely an interesting but risky idea.
Diane (Kidman) grows up in a rich but strict, conventional family. She always think of herself as strange, and outsider, despite the fact that she's very attractive and talented. After marrying the dashing photographer Allan Arbus (Burrell) and having two beautiful daughters, Diane feels trapped as a housewife and her husband assistant. She is a fish out of water and she yearns to break free, but she doesn't know what and how. Allan encourages her to pick up photography so that she's not too stir-crazy.
When Lionel (Downey) moves into the apartment above hers, Diane is intrigued by the strange, mysterious masked man. Armed with a square camera Allan gave her, Diane visits Lionel in the hopes of taking his portrait. Of course, she has an ulterior motive. Soon, much to Allan's suspicion and scrutiny, Diane is spending all her time with Lionel, neglecting her family. What he doesn't know is that Diane has fallen in love with Lionel, and she has discovered the part of her that cannot be suppressed anymore. She is like a caged bird -- once the cage door is opened, there is no way the bird's not flying away.
Nicole Kidman (Bewitched) has a luminous career, spanning both big budget blockbusters and art-house projects. She definitely takes a lot of risk in Fur as an artist. While she shares a slight resemblance with Diane Arbus, Kidman opts to portray Diane in her own way, in a fictional setting that is both absurdist and fascinating. She delivers a quiet, almost withdrawn, protected performance, similar to her role in Birth. In less capable hands, the character would have come off as either too outlandish or boring, but Kidman conveys the inner storm very well with her vulnerability.
Robert Downey Jr. (A Scanner Darkly) is wonderful as Lionel, which is very much a mystical figure in this fantastical tale. He spends almost the entire film behind thick layers of hair or a mask. His performance comes through in his eyes, voice, and body language. There's certain depth in the character -- resignation, peace, irrelevance -- that comes through in his portrayal. The hirsute Lionel and the bewildered Diane are a mesmerizing pair to watch.
The supporting cast has relatively minor presence, including Jane Alexander (Warm Springs) as Diane's insufferably bourgeois mother and Harris Yulin (The Treatment) as her equally conservative husband. Emmy Clarke (The House in Umbria) and Genevieve McCarthy (Parallax) play Diane's daughters, the skeptical Grace and innocent Sophie respectively. The standout is Ty Burrell (Friends with Money) as Allan Arbus, Diane's loving husband who's torn between his dream for a normal life and his love for Diane to be happy. The scenes in which he realizes how brilliantly talented Diane is and that he has indeed lost her are truly amazing and heartbreaking.
Writer Wilson (Secretary) based her fantasy on Bosworth's biography. She and director Stainberg (Secretary) make sure that the audience knows this is not a factual biography of Diane, that the characters of Lionel et el. are fictional. Still, the story examines and claims to reflect the inner workings of Diane Arbus, paying tribute to her strangeness and her unique sense of beauty. To Diane, beauty was not confined by any conventional definitions. She found beauty in the most unlikely places, and the most unusual people. Anyone who is familiar with Diane's work would agree that her subjects are often not regarded as "beautiful" but there's this mesmerizing power and sense of awe. In that sense, I think Fur has succeeded in capturing that strange awe.
In Stainberg's hand, the film is uneven. The cinematography, by Bill Pope (Spider-Man), is gorgeous and fits the mood well. The score by Carter Burwell (Kinsey) also has a strange quality to it, but can be distracting. The pacing seems odd at times, sometimes too slow and sometimes too rushed. There are definitely rough edges. But over all, I find the film fascinating and the performance captivating. I am never bored. And at the end, I find my own inspiration in Diane's story, fictional or not. Even though you may not agree with Diane's seemingly selfish motivations and behaviors -- she is, after all, a wife with a devoted husband, and a mother of two -- you can't help but connect with her sense of identity at the end. And she does it out of love and respect for herself. Her journey is one of imagination, depth and growth.
Stars: Nicole Kidman, Robert Downey Jr., Ty Burrell, Harris Yulin, Jane Alexander
Director: Steven Stainberg
Writers: Erin Cressida Wilson (based on Patricia Bosworth's biography "Arbus")
MPAA Rating: R for nudity, sexuality and language
Running Time: 120 minutes
Script – 7
Performance – 8
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 8
Editing – 7
Production – 7
Total – 7.1 out of 10