Nicole Kidman, who assumes the role of Diane Arbus in “Fur,” is unique among modern movie stars in her willingness to take on tough parts and put herself in the hands of little-known or art-house directors. And it’s not hard to see why filmmakers as varied as Jane Campion (“The Portrait of a Lady”), Jonathan Glazer (“Birth”), and Lars von Trier (“Dogville”) have wanted to play Pygmalion to her Galatea. She’s responsive, eager, and gentle; her tactile flesh takes the light better than anyone else’s; her confiding smile can turn demanding and perverse, and yet she still seems fresh, as if she’d taken up acting last month. But, while other actresses have successfully searched for mentors—Marlene Dietrich found her way to Josef von Sternberg, Bette Davis landed in William Wyler’s productions at Warners, and Diane Keaton teamed up with Woody Allen—Kidman hasn’t always been lucky in her choices, and her taste in scripts is often as shaky as it is brave. As Arbus, she re-creates the waiflike and recessive quality that many noticed in the photographer, but the screenplay, by Erin Cressida Wilson, doesn’t allow her to do much else. Although the subtitle of the movie is “An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus,” Wilson and the director, Steven Shainberg, draw on Arbus’s family and on many elements from her life and her art, only to turn the material into feeble nonsense.
The movie is set in the Manhattan of 1958, when Arbus is a properly coiffed, highly competent but anxious mother of two daughters—a dutiful woman who assists her husband, Allan Arbus, in shooting fashion spreads for magazines and for Russeks, the chain of luxury department stores started by her family. She chafes at her circumscribed role and has moments when her consciousness lapses into dreaminess and erotic fantasy—all of which feels true enough of the actual woman. But then the picture falls apart. Arbus becomes fascinated by a spectral figure who lives in her building—a man who always wears a mask. Slowly, like a teen-ager inching toward disaster in a horror movie, she makes her way upstairs to his apartment and approaches the door. Inside, there’s a guy whose face and body are covered with hair; he has a disease called hypertrichosis. The movie, however, treats hairiness not as a medical problem or a nasty quirk of nature but as a condition of virile sainthood; beneath the matted fur, we see only beseeching eyes and soft lips. His name is Lionel, and he’s a quietly dominating type who murmurs to Diane in confiding tones and orders her around. Step by step, Arbus’s life with her husband and children gives way to her life in the strange apartment, which is half junk shop, half enchanted castle. Lionel introduces her to a netherworld of outcasts and freaks, whom the movie handles as domesticated trolls. They go to parties at which the subjects of Arbus’s later portraits—dwarfs and transvestites and even the Jewish giant himself—sit around and make polite chatter.
In these goings on, there isn’t a trace of the Diane Arbus who was friends with many New York artists and intellectuals of the nineteen-fifties, who obsessively studied the work of August Sander and Walker Evans, who took classes from Berenice Abbott and Lisette Model, and who became a highly conscious, fully articulate teacher as well as a daring and even dangerous artist. This Arbus doesn’t have an idea in her head, though she sure is a fine lady. The movie is meant to be an erotically charged version of “Beauty and the Beast,” but it comes off as Mrs. Miniver Meets Chewbacca. In what is supposed to be a terribly touching scene, Diane shaves off Lionel’s body hair, which requires quite a bit of lather. At last, her expert barbering reveals the handsome torso and doleful countenance of Robert Downey, Jr., the wolfman reborn as a lover.
For sheer not getting the point, this beats anything since Dustin Hoffman made Lenny Bruce into a nice Jewish boy. Diane Arbus did not turn her subjects into normal people. She did not discover hidden nobility and triumphant humanity under the burdens of deformity or madness. On the contrary: her freaks remain freaks. Our American Goya revelled in what was strange and alien about her subjects, and her brutally confrontational style, in which the subjects stare straight back at the camera, turned the attention on us, her audience, and forced the questions “What are you looking at, and who is doing the looking?” Her work, enhanced by enormous formal rigor, is devoted to the ambiguities of fascination and voyeurism. She had our number, and she knew it—which is part of the reason that her pictures have caused furious debate for forty years. But the filmmakers behind “Fur” sentimentalize Arbus, bringing her back into the comfort zone of a woman who is more sensitive than other people to the trials of the unfortunate—exactly the kind of soft fifties liberalism that she knocked to pieces with her conquering stare.
You have to hand it to Peter Mayle. Beginning with “A Year in Provence” (1989), he has squeezed, by my count, twelve books out of the good life in the South of France. He has written memoirs and novels set in the place. He has written about its truffles, its breads, its winds. Now he is rumored to be working on all three volumes of an ambitious trilogy—“The Bells of Provence,” “The Cobblestones of Provence,” and “The Kitchen Fixtures of Provence.” Even under the generous laws of literary entrepreneurship, which permit a writer to repeat himself endlessly in order to make a living, Mayle’s is an unusual achievement. I suppose it’s only appropriate that he has incorporated his work under the name Escargot Productions, and that the “critical acclaim” quoted in the paperback editions of his books includes the phrases “as light as a soufflé and just as tasty” and (my favorite) “so evocative you can almost feel the bib tied around his chin and sip the last drop of Bordeaux at the bottom of his glass.”
In fairness, Mayle’s prose is less cloyingly gustatory than that of his fans, though he certainly caters to the more wistful dreams of his British and American readers—the working stiffs who long to chuck their exhausting jobs in dour northern cities and go native on half a million a year. In the film “A Good Year,” Russell Crowe plays Max Skinner, an unscrupulous bond trader living in a dark and dreary London, where it’s always raining, or about to rain, or has just finished raining—even indoors, it seems, since the decorator colors in the interiors are shades of gray. Max inherits a charming Provençal property, Château La Siroque, from an uncle (Albert Finney) with whom he used to spend the summers—a wise and lusty old gentleman who taught him everything worth knowing about women and wine, and whose affection he has callously forgotten and betrayed. Max intends to stay at the place only long enough to sell it, but falls in love again with the walled medieval village nearby and the loamy valleys that glow in the light. He’s stunned by a beautiful young woman (Marion Cotillard) who rides a bicycle with her hair flying in the breeze. The house, we are not entirely surprised to discover, has a vineyard attached to it.
Even judged by the not excessively demanding standards of middle-aged renovation fantasies, “A Good Year” isn’t much. After developing the story with the director Ridley Scott, who also owns a property in Provence, Mayle wrote it up as a novel, and the screenwriter Marc Klein turned the book into a movie. It would be nice to report that Crowe and Scott took an enjoyably proficient vacation from heroic filmmaking projects like “Gladiator,” but it isn’t so. To begin with, “A Good Year” is not a good vehicle for Crowe to relax in. Stocky and bullish, he looks great on the bridge of a ship or holding off barbarians with a lance but exceptionally unhappy in a bespoke suit. Insouciance and suavely devastating remarks are not his style. The designer beard he grew for the movie, always exactly an eighth of an inch long, emphasizes the smallness of his mouth and the furrows in his brow. Crowe must feel the constraint, because when he heads south he becomes all goosey and floppy-limbed, like Mel Gibson on a lark. His authority as an actor evaporates without any accompanying gain, and Scott, who displayed dazzling skill as the director of such movies as “Blade Runner” and “Black Hawk Down,” also has trouble finding a suitable tempo and style. The movie is wildly overshot and overcut; the simplest scenes jump around from angle to angle. The filmmakers may love Provence, but they don’t trust the audience to love it; even as a travelogue, the movie is a cheat.
After the usual restoration job on the house, we’re introduced to a young American girl (Abbie Cornish), who may or may not be the rightful heir to the property, and to the devious machinations of the château’s vigneron (Didier Bourdon), who may or may not be developing a fabulous boutique red in a corner of the vineyard. There are wily Provençal types, quarrels, and sumptuous meals, but, somewhere between the sunset and the marinated wild boar, the enchantment, along with key details of the plot, slips away with a negligent sigh