A Visual Chronicler of Humanity's Underbelly, Draped in a Pelt of Perversity
In Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novel about humiliation and marble-white flesh, “Venus in Furs,” a seductress named Wanda taunts the man who would be her slave, “And so now fur arouses your bizarre fantasies?” Impatient for the inevitable answer (yes, and how), Wanda begins “coquettishly draping herself in her splendid fur, so that the dark, shiny sables flashed delightfully around her breasts, her arms.” From such turgid lust and swollen prose a perversion is born, as well as a slow-burn Velvet Underground song.
The new film “Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus” is a fantasy of a different order. Its marble-white Venus is Nicole Kidman, who here wears a conceit rather than a sable. The film’s core idea is that Arbus, who trained her photographic gaze on nudists, twins, grimacing children and the retarded, liberated her muse by coaxing out her inner freak. The film conjures a conduit to her liberation in the furry form of Lionel, a neighbor played by Robert Downey Jr. The actor’s involvement is something you need to take on faith, since he spends most of the film covered in fur, a costume that suggests the bewitched prince in Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast” and makes Mr. Downey look like an immaculately groomed Shih Tzu.
“Fur” is a folly, though not a dishonorable one. It was directed by Steven Shainberg, whose last feature, “Secretary,” was a tender love story about a shy masochist and the boss who spanks his way into her heart. The film was funny and modest, and it treated the putative perversions of its characters with the kind of good, gracious humor that insists on respect for everyone involved. “Fur” is a more ambitious work, in part because of Ms. Kidman, whose talent cannot obscure that she has been grievously miscast and left to indulge her mannered coyness.
The fetish of casting high-wattage movie stars, no matter how badly they fit the role, is one of the maladies of contemporary independent and quasi-independent filmmaking.
In 1971, at age 48, Arbus swallowed a large number of barbiturates and then, perhaps to make sure that she had finished the job, slit her wrists. Born Diane Nemerov into a wealthy New York family (her brother was the poet Howard Nemerov), she met Allan Arbus, played by Ty Burrell, when she was 14 and married him as soon as she was legal. He introduced her to photography and she served as his assistant. Together they worked for fashion magazines and on advertising campaigns, including those for her family’s department store, Russeks, which was known for its furs. According to Arbus’s biographer, Patricia Bosworth, Diane’s father understood how to drape women in ermine. “Fur,” he said, “creates a protective image.”
One woman’s protective image is another woman’s sexual fetish is another woman’s fictional gamble. In “Fur,” Mr. Shainberg’s screenwriter, Erin Cressida Wilson, who also wrote “Secretary,” twists the classic Freudian concept of sexual fetishism, having apparently decided that the best way to explain Arbus’s singular perspective on the world is to transform her into a fetishist. Thus, in this formulation, Lionel, her fuzzy neighbor, becomes a kind of walking, talking fetish, a means — to freedom, creativity, imagination and what Ms. Bosworth calls the dark world — that will usher her into a new realm. This sounds more promising than what materializes on screen largely because Mr. Shainberg and Ms. Wilson have turned Arbus’s life into a neurotic fairy tale.
Maybe they just got hung up on the repeated mentions of the word fur in the opening chapter of Ms. Bosworth’s biography. Whatever the case, they, like their subject, wander into dangerous territory, though without the same inspired results. In 1957, Arbus stopped working with her husband and began wandering New York after dark taking photographs. It’s instructive that the film doesn’t mention that she also studied with the photographer Lisette Model, whose interest in everyday people, with their odd shapes and suffering faces, was an obvious influence. The idea that art can also arise from example and instruction just wouldn’t jibe with the film’s vision of an otherworldly kingdom in which hard work, ego and depression of the sort that probably claimed Arbus’s life have no place.
And, so, in “Fur,” the Park Avenue princess leaves the bright world and climbs up, up, up to Lionel’s enchanted garret filled with objets d’exotica and mounds of fur as neatly coiled as sleeping cats. Through her furry friend, she meets an armless woman, a dominatrix and many dwarves. She lets down her hair, goes sleeveless and abandons her husband and children to squalor. Ms. Kidman bears no physical resemblance to Arbus, who was small and dark and seemed very much tethered to the earth, perhaps because that is where she found the grist for her genius. Tall, pale and almost transparently thin, Ms. Kidman floats through the beautiful production design like a feather. She whispers to Lionel, who whispers in return. What are they saying? Damned if I could hear.
“Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). The film has some discreet nudity, some adult language and intimations of sexual deviance.
An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus
Opens today in New York and Los Angeles.
Directed by Steven Shainberg; written by Erin Cressida Wilson, based on the book “Diane Arbus: A Biography” by Patricia Bosworth; director of photography, Bill Pope; edited by Keiko Deguchi and Kristina Boden; music by Carter Burwell; production designer, Amy Danger; produced by William Pohlad, Laura Bickford, Bonnie Timmermann and Andrew Fierberg; released by Picturehouse. Running time: 122 minutes.
WITH: Nicole Kidman (Diane Arbus), Robert Downey Jr. (Lionel Sweeney), Ty Burrell (Allan Arbus), Harris Yulin (David Nemerov), Jane Alexander (Gertrude Nemerov), Emmy Clarke (Grace Arbus), Genevieve McCarthy (Sophie Arbus) and Boris McGiver (Jack Henry).