Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (R) ★★

Review Date: November 10th, 2006

Robert Downey Jr. as the Wolfman? Only in this dystopian, squirm-inducing journey into artsy madness, with Nicole Kidman as '50s photographer Diane Arbus. Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus is unlike anything you've seen--prickly whiskers and all.


''Diane Arbus'' isn't Diane Arbus, the 20th century American icon; she's an imaginary, composite Arbus. That's part of Fur 's self-important problem. The film is like a magic-house maze of mirrors--pretty, but confusing, unsatisfying and never-ending. It's also a Cliff Notes' version of Arbus as an artist. Kidman's Arbus, who is transitioning into a solo artist's career, is torn between split lives: A forbidden, artistic affair with a full-body-haired Lionel (Downey) and her doting, domestic husband Allan (Ty Burrell). Earlier in her life, Arbus' father, a furrier, influenced his daughter's idea. In fact, Fur's whole through-line is about hair of some sorts, as Arbus sees herself as part of the imperfect, obscured, unshaven world she photographs. The real Arbus committed suicide in 1971, and this is her 122-minute tortured journey to understand herself, amid the naturalistic, damaged beauty of armless, smallish characters. Sounds like a fun night out at the movies, doesn't it?


Kidman won't get any nominations for her Diane Arbus. But when the book is closed on her career, playing Arbus will be regarded as one of her more fascinating performance. After her Oscar-winning turn in The Hours and then the very strange Birth, amid broad comedies like Bewitched and Stepford Wives, Kidman has shown her moody gazes before. She's sold all of us on understanding an artist's psychotic limits. Her performance as Arbus--nuanced and complex, probably in need of more than one viewing (though the movie may prevent that)--is limited by unoriginality. In a Beauty and the Beast-inspired turn, Downey Jr. plays the hairy Lionel not as a reclusive but instead conveys emotion through his warm eyes and controlled, confident voice. Arbus finds his sensitivity and Casanova-esque flirting irresistible.


Director Steven Shainberg, best known for his kinky little indie Secretary, chooses Fur as his follow up four years later. That’s a good--and bad--thing. His TV commercials background imbues his work with slick production sheen. Shainberg's hand-crafted meticulousness is evident from start to finish--from the 57-day shoot in New York, to the subtle Alice in Wonderland visual allusions in Lionel's apartment, to the 30-second shots of Kidman's porcelain face contemplating internal conflict. This is a special movie, as was Secretary, which won the Sundance Film Festival 2002's Grand Jury prize. Shainberg, collaborating once again with Secretary screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson, blurs the boundary lines of the three acts and mirrors the story’s messiness. Problem is, it's confusing, unappealing, discomforting and sprawling in its artistic conceit. What's left is tedium, guarded respect (maybe mild admiration), but certainly not affection. Fur is selfish in its perspective, assuming that we care anything at all about the real—or imagined—Diane Arbus.

Bottom Line

Hollywood.com rated this film 2 stars.