Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus

Starring Nicole Kidman, Robert Downey Jr and Ty Birrell. Directed by Steve Shainberg.
Running Time: 117 minutes
Rated: Rated MA 15+ (strong sex scenes)

The title sends us in the right direction to appreciate this film - although many audiences had difficulties with it, assessing it as a biography and finding it not only wanting but too strange. We usually have no difficulty with a photo portrait or, especially, a painted portrait if the artist exaggerates some characteristics, distorts reality in some ways, adds symbolic touches which may or may not have been part of the subject's life. Portraiture is not meant to be an exact art.

However, with a film portrait, because it is presented in moving images, within some kind of narrative, the a priori expectation is that a portrait will be real and we want accuracy of detail. Fur is a fascinating example of a portrait from the imagination of the director into the imagination of its subject. While the screenplay draws on a biography, it makes clear at beginning and end, that it is a subjective exploration and that characters, especially the key character of Lionel, as well as family details are not meant to be taken literally.

Diane Arbus had a short career as a photographyer but is considered one of the most innovative of American photographers. Her subjects were frequently outsiders to society. She committed suicide in 1971. She is portrayed here by Nicole Kidman.

What writer and director Steve Shainberg (whose previous film was the psychodrama on power and sexuality, Secretary) has done is to provide something of a 'realistic' setting for his fantasy exploration (New York, 1958) and then pursued it as if it were his dream about Diane Arbus and as if it were really her dream.

While we see her with her husband, photographer Alan Arbus, and her children, we also meet her dominating and snobbish parents who were fur trade millionaires. Diane is a reticent, somewhat childlike wife, mother and assistant to her husband.

One night a cloaked and masked figure arrives to live in an upstairs apartment. He is concealed like the Elephant Man. It gradually emerges that he has a condition that makes him almost totally and rapidly hirsute. He has been an attraction in a circus and mixes with his many friends who are considered 'freaks'. It becomes a Beauty and the Beast story as Diane becomes more and more intrigued with Lionel (Robert Downey Jr who suffered from psoriasis) and his life and friends become hers - though her family are self-conscious and sometimes embarrassed, except her youngest daughter.

But Lionel is no man to be pitied. He is quite strong-minded, runs a successful wig business. But his lungs are deteriorating. Diane opens up to his very direct questioning, revealing episodes of sexual awakening when she was young and some repressed feelings. This new world entices her into a different life, especially as she falls in love with Lionel to the dismay of her devoted husband (Ty Birrell).

The film dips in and out of 'reality' but spends most of its time in the exotic looking world of Lionel's apartment, like a world created by Diane's unconscious where Lionel is a strong, powerful, wild and animal-looking Animus figure for her, a figure who could lead her to wholeness - except that he is dying and wants her to be present at his death.

So, this is no biography. Rather, it is a blend of the real, the fantasy, the dream, the psychodrama - an invitation to enter into the imagination of Diane Arbus. Nicole Kidman has already played an ultrasensitive and delicate creative artist, her Virginia Woolf in The Hours. She brings a tentativeness to her character here that is transformed to strength and will lead her - to places she never anticipated.

Village Roadshow Out September 13

Fr Peter Malone MSC directs the film desk of SIGNIS: the World Association of Catholic Communicators, and is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.