Fur - An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus

Fur - An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus


Reviewed by: Chris

Is there a particular genius inside each of us? Waiting to be discovered and set free? Could it be like finding true love? Or is falling in love just a metaphor?

Diane Arbus was a real person. She changed from being a very shy woman to becoming a powerful and influential Sixties photographer-artist.

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How did she make the change? She was raised to be part of a privileged class. A very conventional life. Her husband, Allan, a fashion and advertising photographer. Diane's biography might tell us facts but leave the question unanswered. Says Director Steven Shainberg "It's easy to make a film where you slavishly recreate the literal biographical narrative of someone's life. That, for me, never adequately conveys who someone was." Fur - An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus charts her inner life using an imaginary tale.

As it does so, it also charts the journey of finding one's true self. One's real passion in life. A journey that is the subject of countless allegories. Arbus would say that her favourite thing was to go where she's never been before. From an unsettlingly unusual opening sequence, we flash back to a time where it is only familiar territory that encases her daily life.

As devoted wife and mother, Diane looks after hubby's needs. She looks after the models, looks after the clothes. She's withdrawn. The pressure to live up to parental expectation - or play any role except timid dormouse - is almost frightening.

Allan has given her a Rolleiflex camera. It remains unused. One day an extraordinary new neighbour piques her interest, her aspirations, and the courage to venture out of her closed world. His name is Lionel Sweeney (Robert Downey Jr), and he has a rare condition that means his body is covered with hair.

Sweeney's friends are similarly 'misfits'. To Diane, they are a riddle. They have a quality of legend about them. Her awakening does not fit easily with the world she has come from.

Fur - An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus is a rare work that presents an intriguing take on documentary. As a tribute to the real Arbus, it creates a clear work of fiction, paralleling a period in her life, to tell a reality that material facts would be powerless to accomplish. Thematically it is reminiscent of Cocteau's La Belle et la Bete. Diane, whose real-life photographs are famed for challenging accepted ideas of beauty and ugliness, ventures into a dark and mysterious world where she notices jewels to which others are blind.

Diane Arbus is played by Nicole Kidman, one of the most accomplished actresses of our generation. The remarkable body language she brings to the part gives the necessary vitality for the film to achieve its aim. You can almost see the lump in her throat as her eye travels to a potentially unique photo. We watch the slightest movement of her eyes as she is alerted to the beauty of a stairwell or a door knocker. And her fire of aspiration (as a budding photographer) contrasts with the loving but mindless wife who dissolves under public pressure. Precise, crisp cinematography captures the dark and almost mystical objects that fascinate her - and contrasts the soulless perfection of her husband's photo-shoots.

The character of Diane Arbus in the film echoes that of Julianne Moore in The Hours. A Fifties 'perfect wife and mother'. Idolised by a loving husband. Striving to live up to the image. Her intelligence is subsumed into such tasks as fixing the plumbing when it goes wrong. The perfect - but useful - ornament.

Robert Downey Jr encapsulates the strange (but just about believable) hirsute Lionel. His calm, hypnotic tones and his gentleness portray the real person beneath the masks as he convincingly captivates the straight-laced Diane (although I had to strain to make out what he was saying at times). Ty Burrell is perfect as the staunch Fifties husband, committed to his wife without really knowing her.

A beautifully dark jazz score trickles through the film, a melody unfolding and discovering itself.

Director Steven Shainberg (who made Secretary) presents us with an art house treat that is as far from being a money-spinner for its stars as was von Trier's Dogville or Linklater's A Scanner Darkly. Such commitment to art-for-art's sake is to be welcomed, even when the result falls short of perfect. And this experiment is excellent but not perfect. If you can relate to the updating of Beauty and the Beast, or want to see into the mind of famous photographer (who is still relatively unknown outside of art circles), Fur - An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus is a triumph. But the lack of pacing, even with stars like Kidman, condemns it to the small distribution of cinemas that show films for cinephiles rather than movie-goers.

Given that Arbus' work attacked the boundaries of what is considered to be 'proper' and 'tasteful' in art, the film is remarkably restrained by modern-day standards. But there again, "A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know." Perhaps Fur - An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus is to awaken within us the question rather than providing the answer. Like an Alice in Wonderland, each of us makes a decision whether to explore the strange and avant-garde. And like Laura Brown in The Hours, Arbus makes that exploration. She takes a life-changing decision to find her inner genius.

The imaginary portrait that circumstances paint of us is not always the one we want. This film inspired me to think of an artist's insight and sensitivity - especially when that sensitivity is brought on by social or emotional isolation. The challenge is to act on the insight - perhaps like being able to swim in the sea but still breathe the air...

Reviewed on: 23 Apr 2007
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The bored wife of a successful photographer becomes intrigued by her unusual new neighbour.
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Read more Fur - An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus reviews:

Jennie Kermode ****

Director: Steven Shainberg

Writer: Erin Cressida Wilson, based on the book by Patricia Bosworth

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Robert Downey Jr., Ty Burrell, Harris Yulin, Jane Alexander

Year: 2006

Runtime: 120 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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