Sunday, April 01, 2007

Review - Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus

When is a biopic not a biopic? When it’s an ‘imaginary portrait’ of course. Plenty of films have been accused of manipulating the facts and fictionalising the stories of true-life characters in the past, but Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus gets its retaliation in first with the unusual step of including a disclaimer in the title. Just in case we don’t get the idea, another disclaimer precedes the opening credits which tells us that this film is meant as “a tribute to Diane that invents characters and situations that reach beyond reality to express what might have been Arbus’s inner experience on her extraordinary path”. In other words, don’t believe anything you see here because we’ve made most of it up.

In a way, we should be thankful for a film like Fur, a film which at least deviates from the standard biopic structure which has resurfaced with such depressing frequency in recent years. Steven Shainberg gave the romantic comedy genre a welcome boost in 2002 with the S+M shenanigans of Secretary, but his attempt to impose a similarly skewed perspective onto Diane Arbus’s story quickly unravels. The opening disclaimer mentioned above refers to Arbus as one of the most important artists of the 20th Century, someone whose work changed American photography forever, but the film gives us no evidence of this, instead deciding to offer us a tediously irrelevant story about a bored housewife and her hairy neighbour.
Fur opens with Diane Arbus (a miscast but very watchable Nicole Kidman) taking a bus ride out to a secluded nudist colony, hoping to photograph some of the residents. A nude couple run Arbus through the colony’s rules, including their request that photographers should be as naked as everyone else before they take pictures. Arbus agrees but asks for a little time alone before disrobing, and as the couple get up to leave the woman notices Arbus’s locket, which contains a tuft of hair in a red ribbon. “It belonged to a friend” she says, and the film then slips into a feature-length flashback which begins three months previously.

At this point in time Diane isn’t the photographer in the family, her husband Allen (Ty Burrell) is, shooting cheesy spreads for women’s magazines and advertisements for the furrier business run by her parents (Harris Yulin and Jane Alexander). Diane helps out with her husband’s preparations, occasionally advising him on his compositions, but it’s very clear from her demeanour that she’s a knotted ball of frustration. During the party being thrown at her place early in the film Diane slinks about in the shadows, observing the well-to-do friends of her parents, and Shainberg focuses in on the guests’ mouths as they slurp and scoff their food, the heightened sound effects turning them into grotesque figures - freaks, you might say. Later Diane seems to be on the edge of a breakdown when she finds herself at the centre of attention, and she flees the scene halfway through her explanation of her role in Allan’s work. She runs to the balcony and inexplicably opens her dress to bare her underwear to the world.
Fur portrays this pre-fame Diane Arbus as a woman whose inner passions are raging behind the prim façade she must present to the world in this stifling environment. Kidman can handle these buttoned-down emotions as well as anyone, and she brings her usual intelligence and dedication to the part, giving a sensitive, nuanced, appealing performance. Kidman’s desire to continually lend her talents to risky roles in films from inexperienced directors is admirable, but on too many occasions her skills haven’t been matched by the material. This was the case in 2004 when she gave one of the best screen performances of recent years in the otherwise muddled Birth, a similar fate befell her marvellous display in British misfire Birthday Girl, and the same unfortunate scenario transpires here. Kidman tries to make Arbus come to life but the film gives her no support.

At last, help arrives for Kidman in the shape of her new neighbour. She has already caught a glimpse of this mysterious figure wearing a bizarre patchwork balaclava on the night he moved in, and when Diane starts finding large lumps of hair in her pipes she is intrigued. The man upstairs is Chewbacca - sorry, I mean Lionel - and he is played by Robert Downey Jr, but you wouldn’t recognise the actor at first sight as he is covered head to toe in thick brown hair. Lionel suffers from a condition known as Hypertrichosis which causes excessive hair growth over his whole body. Lionel fascinates Diane, encouraging her to finally pull out the camera Allan gave her years ago and take some photographs, but Lionel refuses to have his portrait taken until they have fully investigated each other. Instead, he takes Diane to meet his friends - dwarves, giants and an armless woman who lights cigarettes with her feet - and she blossoms in his company, becoming increasingly comfortable in this hidden society, much to the horror of her family.

The point Shainberg seems to be making is that Arbus needed to understand society’s cast-offs and outsiders, to perhaps feel some sense of kinship with them, before she began to photograph them, but if that is the thesis of Fur (it’s hard to say for sure) then the filmmakers never really manage to sell it. Did Arbus’s pictures of various deformed and eccentric figures really carry the sense of warmth and sympathy such an understanding would supposedly lend them? Or were they more distant and anthropological, observing the subjects with a cold detachment - fascinated but unmoved. To be honest, if you have questions about Arbus’s true thoughts towards her subjects or the motivations behind her unusual approach, then this is not the movie to answer them. Diane barely uses her camera during the course of the picture and none of her genuine photographs are ever shown; so when the film refuses to treat the central figure with any sort of seriousness or any clear intent, what’s left?

There are things to like about Fur, and for the film’s first hour I was sticking with it, hoping - almost praying - that its loopy narrative was leading us somewhere of consequence. Shainberg maintains a fairytale atmosphere to his storytelling, referencing the likes of Alice in Wonderland and La Belle et la bête, but he also seems to be aiming for a mood of subdued eroticism, which is a pretty difficult pitch to hit successfully. This blend of different tones just seems awkward and flat, and the resolutely understated approach employed by Shainberg takes its toll in the second half with the picture looking increasingly lethargic. He does do good work with his actors, though. The very fact that Robert Downey Jr can show us any sort of emotions from inside that giant furball is something of an achievement, but he brings am odd sense of dignity to Lionel, expressing the pain of a lifetime of exclusion through the sadness in his eyes and the tremor in his voice. The best performance in the film comes from Ty Burrell though, who is excellent as Diane’s baffled husband, watching helplessly as his wife turns into a different person before his eyes.

But their performances amount to nothing in this frustrating film, and Fur loses its way completely in the final third. The long sequence in which Diane shaves Lionel is intended to be erotic and touching, but it simply comes off looking weird and creepy instead, and some murmurs of discontent started making themselves heard at the screening I attended. Those murmurs turned to sniggers when the now-hairless Downey appeared and hopped into bed with Diane, and it was clear that the film had finally slipped into the yawning pit of ridiculousness which it had been precariously hovering over for the past two hours.

Is Fur really a fitting tribute to a woman who, as the filmmakers say, changed 20th Century photography? The film at once asks us to take it as an imaginary piece of work, and yet claims to “express what might have been Arbus’s inner experience”, but it can’t achieve either of these aims. Fur fails to convince as a drama, it offers no insight into its subject’s personality or her work, and all it has in its favour is a collection of actors who fight valiantly against the rising waves of inanity. Actually, Fur did tell me one thing about Arbus which I didn’t know before, the correct pronunciation of her first name was actually Dee-ann; but whether it was worth sitting through the picture just for that earth-shattering revelation is another matter entirely.