Fur - An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus

Fur - An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Born in 1923, Diane Arbus came to photography late in life. She started out as her husband's assistant, learning the craft from him but never employing it until the two of them began to drift apart, after which she would become one of America's most famous photographic artists, particularly noted for her pictures of marginalised individuals - self-styled freaks. This film depicts her at that critical stage in her life. Highly fictitious, containing several characters who never actually existed, it makes no secret of its approach, aiming to use its invented storylines to investigate something of the inner journey Arbus experienced at that time.

In the central role of the repressed housewife frightened by her own uncertain differentness, Nicole Kidman turns in another sterling performance, conveying as much by the way she walks as by the lines she speaks, artfully putting across both Arbus' fragility and her strength. She is more than matched by Robert Downey Jr, who reminds us just what he is capable of as her mysterious new neighbour Lionel.

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Lionel has hypertrichosis, a genetic condition which means that he is covered all over in hair, so Downey Jr, often seen in close-up, must act mostly with his eyes, yet he presents us with a complex character who is much more than the combined consequences of his estrangement from mainstream society. Arbus finds this estrangement fascinating and soon allows herself to be drawn into a world populated by outsiders, no longer feeling like a freak herself.

The film centres on her personal experience of change, which is necessarily self-centered despite her apparent focus on others. This is effectively underscored with references to Alice In Wonderland, more subtly handled and altogether more appropriate than is usually the case in film. She is cruel like Alice, and the film is not unsympathetic to the family enduring a gradual process of abandonment as she discovers herself. Only Lionel is really a match for her, and that's because he has a much more dramatic secret of his own, something which will have an unexpected impact on Arbus' relation to the world.

As a piece of art in itself, Fur is appropriately restrained - like Arbus, it's more interested in looking at character than superficial appearances. Nevertheless, it has an intensity which some viewers will find too much, especially during its erotic scenes, even though they are not really explicit. Others will find it funny, which the script allows plenty of room for. Lionel is aware of his own sometime pompousness and his humour provides an effective counterpoint to Arbus' enervating self-consciousness. The exotic people whom Arbus comes to meet all have their own contributions to make in this regard, though they are effectively presented as more than mere titillation. The settings in which they interact are fabulously designed, adding a great deal to the overall richness of the film, and the whole thing is shot in an abrupt yet intimate manner as if we were ourselves intruders in the building where Diane's discoveries begin.

Although it won't appeal to everyone, Fur is an intriguing and genuinely inventive piece of cinema of the sort which doesn't come along very often. It's a must for Kidman fans and will appeal to all those with a tendency to focus on the oddities which the rest of the world overlooks.

Reviewed on: 19 Mar 2007
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The bored wife of a successful photographer becomes intrigued by her unusual new neighbour.
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Chris ****

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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