FUR: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus

Maggie Nepomuceno

You almost can’t go wrong with a biopic these days. Recent hits like “Walk the Line,” “Ray” and “Capote” received critical acclaim and nabbed Oscar wins for their actors. However, the conventional biopic is not what director Steven Shainberg had in mind with his new film “FUR: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus.”

“FUR” is an inner portrait of renowned photographer Diane Arbus (Nicole Kidman) as she goes on a journey toward self-discovery and love. Arbus, who committed suicide in 1971, challenged the art world’s ideas of beauty and produced a body of work that was erotic, strange and daring. As the subtitle suggests, this is not a straightforward, historical account of Arbus’s life. Instead, it merges real facts with invented characters and fictional storylines to imagine what could have sparked Arbus’ transition from 1950s New York housewife to eccentric photographer.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Shainberg (“Hit Me,” “Secretary”). In the interview, he explains why he chose not to go with the conventional movie biopic.

“The problem with those movies from my point of view is that they basically tell you something you already know,” Shainberg said. “They really got the literal truth right, but I don’t know that guy any more than before I went into the film. I want to offer you something that you don’t know. It’s much more mysterious to experience the unknown than the known.”

Shainberg certainly takes us into an unknown world with bizarre set designs and an oddball mix of characters, much like a page from “Alice in Wonderland.” We first meet Diane (pronounced Dee-ann) while she is hosting a fashion show for her furrier father. It immediately becomes clear that she is insecure with her role as the docile daughter and feeble assistant to her photographer husband, Allan (Ty Burrell).

The catalyst of Diane’s self-discovery comes in the form of her mysterious new neighbor Lionel (Robert Downey Jr.), a man afflicted with a rare disorder that has covered him in hair from head to toe. Diane’s professional and erotic obsession with Lionel and his circle of “freaks” eventually come to define her photographs.

A large part of the film focuses not so much on Diane’s life, but rather on the “Beauty and the Beast”-like love story that emerges between Diane and Lionel. The relationship becomes the springboard for the two characters to reveal themselves nakedly (both literally and figuratively) to each other and then to the world.While Kidman puts on a compelling performance, her portrayal does not aim to resemble the real Diane Arbus. She was explicitly directed not to listen to any tapes of Arbus’ voice or to talk to anyone who knew Arbus.

“We’re not doing that,” Shainberg told Kidman. “I’m not making a movie where you’re going to imitate somebody who’s dead. This is not an external portrait; it’s an internal portrait. Your job is to live this yourself, not to spend 90 percent of your energy trying to learn to walk like Diane Arbus.”

Downey’s performance as Lionel is more impressive than Kidman’s and quite possibly the best part of the film. His character evokes enough insight and endearment to ignite Diane’s artistic impulse despite the fact that he is completely covered in hair. Downey has the remarkable ability to communicate with only his eyes and voice in a chilling and extraordinary manner, an attribute that most actors would not be able to claim and that Shainberg says was a big reason for casting him.

“[Downey] just has this enormous energy and tremendous verbal skill,” Shainberg said. “But that’s what was so interesting about casting for this movie, because it was all about being still. It was all about being quiet. It was all about letting the life that he has lived, the feeling that he has in him just come through his eyes. It takes a lot of balls to play a part like that.”

Unfortunately, Downey’s physical appearance as a hair-covered man will probably remind most viewers of Chewbacca from “Star Wars.” The comparisons can be distracting and, at times, seem ridiculous. However, it is a distraction worth setting aside in order to appreciate Downey’s brilliant performance.

Despite noble intentions, the film never seems to truly embrace Diane Arbus, nor does it shed as much light on her as an artist as one might hope. Given that Arbus would commit suicide five years after the movie takes place, the filmmakers perhaps could have left some clue as to what may have led to her downfall after achieving such artistic self-fulfillment. Instead, the movie concludes with a happy ending, leaving one feeling as though Arbus’ life will also end happily.

“FUR’s” combination of fairy tale, psychological study and love story produces a film that is undoubtedly innovative, bold and beautifully shot, but unfortunately is overpowered by flawed storylines. The film moves too slowly and has more complex, metaphorical elements than the average movie-goer can comprehend. Exactly what impression does Shainberg hope his audience will leave the theater with?

“There is a kind of dark, heavy despair to the general public understanding of [Arbus] as if she were the Sylvia Plath of photography,” he said. “That’s only really a small part of her story. It’s not about photography. It’s about discovering what you really genuinely need to do. That’s what you feel when you watch the film. She heads off into the world naked with a camera. I think in a way that’s what we all wish for, is to discover that. That to me is a story that anybody can connect with meaningfully. And that’s why I made it the way I did. That’s what’s inspiring to me about her and will always be celebratory.”