Whenever a new biopic comes out, critics jump all over each other pointing out the inaccuracies. Ray Charles never stopped doing drugs. John Nash was mean. Cole Porter was gay. There can be no such hand-wringing over “Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus.” Steven Shainberg (“Secretary”) has taken the bare bones of the photographer’s life and gone wild with them.
“It comes really out of my lack of affection for straight ahead biopics,” Shainberg said in an interview. “Those films show you the greatest hits of a person’s life, and essentially tell you things you largely know, and that to me is kind of an empty exercise from a filmmaking point of view, but it’s also an empty experience for the viewer.” No matter how much you know about Diane Arbus, it won’t be repeated here.
This much is true: Arbus’ parents were wealthy Jewish furriers. She worked as an assistant for her commercial photographer husband, Allan (Ty Burrell). In 1958, at the age of 35, she left him and their children and began taking her own pictures – intimate portraits of giants, prostitutes, transvestites and other “unusual people.”
How did this nice 50s housewife become a fellow traveler in the seedy underworld? That’s the question “Fur” tries to answer, but not by stringing together the facts. Instead, Shainberg crafts a monster that both embodies and facilitates Arbus’ transformation: a mysterious new neighbor named Lionel (Robert Downey Jr.). Lionel is afflicted with something called hypertrichosis – his entire face and body are covered in hair.
Arbus already feels like an outsider in her own life; Lionel introduces her to genuine weirdos. They watch an old man slow-dance with a topless dominatrix. Arbus is fascinated. “Look at his socks,” she whispers. Before long, as Allan says, “There’s a hole in my ceiling and fucking freaks coming down it.”
Downey Jr., probably the only actor who can successfully flirt through full-body fur, makes Lionel irresistible, even as you wonder whether he’s real. Kidman (who has looked increasingly unreal on red carpets lately), does what she does best – a thoughtful, trembly wariness. But Arbus still comes off as an unwitting wanderer, not the intelligent and purposeful woman she was.
“Alice in Wonderland” is an obvious inspiration- the film is filled with visual tributes to that strange trip. Another influence is Jean Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast.” Like Cocteau, Shainberg is asking for a little childlike simplicity.
An “imaginary portrait” requires such audience complicity, and Shainberg leads the viewer along step by step, willing us not to scoff. When Lionel lets Arbus shave him down to normalcy, it feels like a betrayal of that trust (and of the photographer’s philosophy).
So does the revelation that Lionel is dying. Suddenly this crazed, hairy romance is a conventional doomed affair, complete with a goodbye on the seashore. It’s a cheap, unhappy ending.
The real unhappy ending, what Shainberg calls a “literal paltry definition of what happens later,” is that Arbus killed herself at the age of 48 by taking barbiturates and slitting her wrists. There’s no mention of it in the film. Like “Secretary,” “Fur” takes an odd, sad subject and teases out something sweet.
Sometimes there’s a little too much sugar, but “Fur” is still a refreshing antidote to the traditional life story. “My favorite thing is to go where I have never gone,” Arbus once said. “Fur,” for whatever it missteps, takes that spirit to heart.