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`Fur' flies fancifully

Photographer Diane Arbus' life is seen through a filter that distorts her realities in favor of glossy fantasy and conjecture.

November 10, 2006|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

Creativity is one of life's true mysteries, but that hasn't stopped people from attempting to analyze and trivialize the source of the artistic impulse. Yet the mystery always triumphs, as it does in the simplistic but strangely poetic "Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus."

"Fur" stars Nicole Kidman as Arbus, one of the 20th century's signature American photographers. "Her startling portraits of dwarfs, transvestites, freaks and nudists," wrote biographer Patricia Bosworth, "redefined people's notions of normal and abnormal."

Despite Bosworth's presence as a co-producer, "Fur" is not an attempt at a conventional biopic but what it calls "an imaginary portrait." Directed by Steven Shainberg and written by Erin Cressida Wilson (the team that brought you the bondage-friendly "Secretary"), "Fur" has an unusual aim.

"What you are about to see," an opening title card reads, "is a tribute to Diane: a film that invents characters and situations that reach beyond reality to express what might have been Arbus' inner experience on her extraordinary path."

Which is a fancy way of saying that "Fur" is on one level a facile cause-and-effect gloss on Arbus' life, a complete fantasy that reductively reduces the complex drives that go into the creation of an artist to a relationship with an unusual man. It's the cinematic equivalent of the questionable theory that El Greco painted the way he did because he had astigmatism and simply couldn't see the world any better.

Yet, and this is where the mystery comes in, the certainty Shainberg and Wilson bring to the project -- and the sophisticated acting by Kidman and Robert Downey Jr. as that mysterious man -- forces us to take this film more seriously than it otherwise deserves. It remains simultaneously too far-fetched and thesis-driven to be convincing and too feelingly done to be ignored.

"Fur" opens with Arbus fairly radiating happiness as she sits on a bus headed, it turns out, for a nudist-colony photo shoot. Smiling and confident, she looks over a list that reads "hunchbacks, slaughter houses, albinos." It's an inventory that wouldn't bring a grin to all faces, but that's the point: We are meant to recognize an artist discovering herself.

The bulk of "Fur," however, is spent in a flashback that begins three months earlier, when the Arbus we see is so repressed and stifled that the first image shows her buttoning her buttons all the way up to the top.

This Arbus is a careful mother to her two children and a dutiful daughter to her overbearing, high-society parents, David and Gertrude Nemerov (Harris Yulin and Jane Alexander), proprietors of the Fifth Avenue fur emporium called Russek's.

She is also wife and assistant to Allan Arbus (Ty Burrell of "Friends With Money"), a photographer who speaks up for his wife's camera dreams, though he himself does sterile commercial work.

Although "Fur" takes pains to paint Diane's husband as loving, concerned and decent, it's clear that working in this atmosphere has not done wonders for her. This constraint is signified, in typically unsubtle fashion, by a scene of Arbus standing on a balcony and unfastening all those carefully buttoned buttons.

But hark, salvation is at hand. A new tenant named Lionel (Downey) is moving into the Arbus' building, a man whose face is always masked and whom Diane feels unaccountably drawn to.

After a brief horror film-type buildup that emphasizes his strangeness, Diane goes up to Lionel's apartment, which looks like the lair of a fairy tale wizard, with the idea of discovering his secret and taking his photograph.

Lionel's secret is that every inch of him is covered in rich, luxurious hair (the veteran Stan Winston Studio gets credit for the remarkable design). He looks, in fact, quite similar to the Beast in Jean Cocteau's "Beauty and the Beast," an admitted influence, and, like the beast, he turns out to be the most charming of men.

More than that, Lionel liberates Diane's hidden voyeur, becoming her tour guide to the universe of people who may look different but really are the nicest folks in the world. No Lionel, "Fur" insists, no great photographs.

Obviously, this is all supposed to be taken metaphorically, but "Fur" undercuts that aim with a series of all-too-literal maneuvers. For one thing, husband Allan, clearly threatened by Lionel's charisma, grows a thick beard. For another, those familiar with Arbus' work will notice that the people she meets tend to look exactly like the subjects of her most famous photographs. How convenient.

Most irritating of all, "Fur" falls back on a cop-out ending that undercuts its message about the unimportance of surface differences in favor of a glib finale that tries to have its cake and eat it too.

Yet whenever you get too irritated at "Fur's" pretensions, the remarkable acting of its two stars pulls you back in and keeps you watching.

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