Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus | Movie Reviews + Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus

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The camera came between them: Nicole Kidman and Ty Burrell
  • The camera came between them: Nicole Kidman and Ty Burrell

When was the last time you saw a real live woman with three eyes and square breasts? And yet, Picasso painted them that way because art isn't always representational -- isn't always literally "true."

That's how you need to think of Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, which is not, as its ad nauseam title suggests, a biopic, even by the standards of Hollywood -- itself an imaginary place that takes liberties in telling true stories. Arbus, the innovative photographer, died in 1971 at age 48, from a combination of barbiturates and slit wrists. Fur ends with a suicide as well. As for the rest, just think of this as her reel life, not her real one.

We meet the artist (Nicole Kidman), who pronounces her name "Dee-ann," as she arrives at a nudist camp in 1958 to photograph its participants, who will let her do her work only if she joins them in the buff. Nudus interruptus: Flash back three months to see her, bored and frustrated, working as assistant to her husband, Allan Arbus (Ty Burrell), a fashion photographer who shoots models for Diane's father, David Nemerov (Harris Yulin), a wealthy furrier. David and his wife Gertrude (Jane Alexander) entertain New York's elite, and they expect their daughter to join their in-crowd. But she has other ideas.

Out the window of her grand apartment, she watches the building's newest tenant, his face covered with a mask. She's intrigued, and soon meets him: Lionel Sweeney (Robert Downey Jr.), wig maker, who's afflicted with a condition that causes him to grow hair all over his body. Soon she begins to mix with Lionel's friends, a collection of dwarves and drag queens, and an armless woman who plays the cello with her feet. It's all very gothic, and the period detail is at once elegant and otherworldly.

Beneath Lionel's mask and clothing, he looks like an animal. Beneath that, he feels like a man. This duality is the central metaphor of Fur, which was directed by Steven Shainberg, who made the outstanding Secretary, a story of the sexual kinks beneath the surface of two ordinary people in business attire. His new film is a serious effort to interpret Arbus' emerging fascination with real life, as opposed to the mendacious sophistication of fashion photography. Arbus' most famous work captured the freakish in the everyday. Shainberg suggests that she found her theme by seeing the everyday in freaks.

But shaved down, Fur is pretty much a textbook case, short on epiphany like a movie of its ilk should be. The acting is uneven, with Kidman reprising the character type that won her an Oscar: a suicidal artist. It's just that Shainberg too often seems to turn to his interest in sex when he should have stuck with art and suicide. The upshot is a film with out much life to it, reel or real.

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