Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus
A fictitious snapshot of influential photographer Diane (pronounced “Dee-anne”) Arbus — think of it as a sort of impressionistic Polaroid biopic — Fur stars Nicole Kidman in the title role, and she brings her characteristic full-bodied attentiveness and intelligence to the part. Still, even this isn’t enough to bring to a full boil what is essentially a very symbolically telegraphed and half-lidded sketch about desire, burgeoning self-expression and independence.
Based on a book by Patricia Bosworth, and adapted for the screen by director Steven Shainberg’s Secretary partner Erin Cressida Wilson, Fur is a sort of through-the-looking-glass tale, centered around Arbus’ putative “inner experience,” and thus inventing characters and situations wholesale. One can’t say for certain whether it was this approach that in part, large or small, resulted in the movie’s commercial implosion (it grossed all of $220,000 domestically, though its widest release came at less than 40 screens), but it undoubtedly further segregates the subject matter from those that might otherwise be at least half-interested in either a historical biopic or tale of self-actualization. Fur, you see, is about Arbus’ personal growth through a relationship with a guy… covered in fur.
Set in New York City in 1958, the story unfolds in a high society world, the sort of place where Diane’s momentary tearing up and excusal from a presentation is cause for gasping, whispered chatter. Yes, Arbus is another oppressed housewife, you see, stifled by life as an assistant to her portraiture and advertising photographer husband, Allan (Ty Burrell). She harbors her own considerable talents, though, and soon meets Freudian with Lionel (Robert Downey, Jr.), a new neighbor stricken by hypertrichosis, which results in a thick coat of hair that covers his body, head to toe. Though he hides his face under a bag, Lionel’s penetrating gaze strips the veneer off of Diane’s tidy reality, and she soon finds herself sucked into what might be characterized as an emotional affair. She begins to meet with Lionel under the guise of taking his photo, but never quite gets around to doing so.
Despite its outwardly manifested outlandish elements, Fur is for the most part a movie of considerable
subtlety and restraint; Arbus’ journey isn’t quite as in lockstep with Betty
Freidan as one might imagine. Allan is a compassionate and sympathetic figure,
and he initially quite supports his wife’s artistic awakening. Even when Diane
begins to shut him off in more explicit or pronounced ways, much of his
frustration is channeled inward — though he does (somewhat amusingly) grow a
beard in a silent gambit of plaintive outreach. The film’s problem, really, is
that it places such weight on an admittedly contrived plot point and character, and so we
learn nothing of consequence about Arbus or her real-life work. She comes across here as widely defined, a placeholder for the creative spirit.
Presented in 1.85:1 widescreen, which preserves the aspect ratio of its theatrical exhibition, Fur comes packaged in a regular Amray case, and is anchored by English language Dolby digital 5.1 surround and stereo surround audio mixes that are each a bit low on dialogue register, but nicely capture Carter Burwell’s music — full of moody, heavy string pieces that at times recalls Phillip Glass and at other times Angelo Badalamenti. Optional English and Spanish subtitles are also included.
Delicate, animated menu screens give way to the disc’s special features, which consist of a brief making-of featurette nipped from HBO’s First Look series, deleted scenes with optional commentary by Shainberg and an audio commentary track from the director, who allows no lulls, uncomfortable or otherwise, to intercede. Generally eschewing production anecdotes, Shainberg disdains the line of reasoning that Arbus’ portraiture work of dwarves, giants and deviants is exploitative. A lot of his patter, though, merely points up Fur’s ladled-on representational topcoat. “To some extent film is about transmission of his world to her,” Shainberg says at one point; then, “Lionel being upstairs is a metaphoric representation of Arbus’ inner life — the world that she wants to explore is right there.” Sure, we get it. What of Diane’s deeper, truer feelings, though — unattached to anyone else, family or otherwise? Fur looks past this forest through the trees, beholden in willful fashion to its own immaculately tasteful art-posturing. C- (Movie) B (Disc)