Fur: An Imaginary Portrait Diane Arbus opens today in limited release, and I have to wonder how many people have even heard of it. I hadn't really planned on seeing Fur at Telluride; at least, it wasn't on my radar as a "must see" film. Then I heard so many people buzzing about it, I decided to add it to my schedule at the last minute. It was one of those polarizing films with very little middle ground: People were either very Pro-Fur or very Anti-Fur -- so I had to see it. About a third of the way into the film, I was thinking to myself, "This film is not going to play well to mainstream movie audiences, but I love it." Then again, I'm the sort of filmgoer who actually likes weird. I enjoy having my expectations turned on their ear, and Fur definitely does that.

Another upcoming artsy film that leans sharply toward the bizarre is Perfume: Story of a Murderer. I caught a screening of Perfume, helmed by Run, Lola, Run director Tom Tykwer, the other night. Perfume opens in limited release at the end of December, with a wider release slated for January. Like Fur, Perfume is a dark, almost hallucinatory film with the air of a fable about it. I thought when I saw Fur that I'd seen the most curious film I was likely to see all year; Perfume managed to surpass it -- in a really good way.






Fur
and Perfume are what Anne Thompson referred to as "smart house" films. They're in a class all to themselves, even among art house cinema; they make you think hard, both while you're watching, and for days later, as the aftermath of imagery and layers of meaning unfold in your head. The films are very different from each other, and yet, they should have a lot of cross-appeal; if you're intrigued by one, you're likely to also be intrigued by the other. Anne Thompson wrote the other day on her Risky Biz blog about the PR nightmare facing Picturehouse, Fur's distrib, noting that stars Nicole Kidman and Robert Downey, Jr, and even director Steven Shainberg (who did, at least, show up to intro the film at Telluride) haven't exactly been out pounding the pavement promoting the film.

This is a strange, brave, artsy film, and the talent ought to be out there endlessly promoting it if they want people to get out there to see it. Thompson notes that Kidman did attend the film's Rome premiere, but canceled other appearances after her husband, Keith Urban, went into rehab, so we can cut her some slack. But Downey, Jr, aside from a junket appearance, hasn't really made the circuit in support of the film, and Shainberg reportedly hasn't shown up for every PR opportunity either. Why is anyone's guess; they haven't, though, and because they haven't, the film's box office is bound to be affected.

Fur explores the imagined transition of Arbus from repressed 1950s housewife to independent artist (stopping well short of her tragic suicide at the age of 48), bravely taking on the challenge of exploring the psyche of a visual artist without being able to actually use any of Arbus' photography in the film. It's a challenging film to watch if you're used to getting your information spoon-fed to you; Shainberg gives you what he imagines as what might have been going on inside Arbus as she grew into being an artist, and asks you to suspend disbelief and use your own imagination as you go along for the ride with him. It's full of symbolism and imagery, and it's a tough sell without the benefit of its stars backing it up.

Perfume also delves inside a mind -- in this case, of a sociopathic young man, marginalized by society, who, being gifted with a remarkable nose, becomes addicted to amassing collection of scents. When he realizes that he himself has no personal scent, he becomes obsessed with capturing the scent of beautiful young women and creating the perfect scent that will make him feel fully human and able to feel emotion. It's a smart, clever, brilliantly constructed film that weaves visual imagery and symbolism, music and mood to draw the viewer in; the storyline is somewhat bleak and depressing, but Tykwer hasn't made a bleak or depressing film out of it. Rather, he's taken this shadowy tale and crafted a film from the perspective of the twisted protagonist that shows us the view of a sociopathic personality from the inside out better than any film I can think of in recent memory. I'll have a full review out around the film's release at the end of December, but suffice it for now to say: This is one film that art house cinema fans should be on the edges of their seats to see.

Audiences bemoan the lack of originality coming out of Hollywood, yet time and again, they don't support true creativity with their wallets at the box office. Outkast's Idlewild, which, while not a perfect film, definitely pushed the envelope of creativity in filmmaking, hasn't made back its $15 million budget yet. Fur, with it's estimated budget of almost $17 million, is going to have a hell of a time making that back if Picturehouse can't figure out how to successfully promote the film in the absence of support from its stars. If the enormously popular boys from Outkast haven't been able to rake in even $15 million to date with their huge fan base, it's hard to imagine Fur making back its bank without some serious PR to generate awareness of the film -- and "wow, that film was really ... bizarre" probably won't rate with the average filmgoer.

Perfume, on the other hand, will come out of the gate in the States with a huge box office advantage. It's based on a hugely popular German bestseller, and it's already opened in Europe and taken in an estimated $74.5 million over there. Whatever it makes in the US is gravy, but Tykwer has a pretty solid art house following, and the presence of Hoffman and Rickman -- both well-known to American audiences -- will likely draw people to see the film. If Tykwer, Hoffman and Rickman really promote the film well, it could play quite well here. Both films, though, deserve support from all those moviegoers who moan and wail about how Hollywood churns out dreck, because whatever else these films may be, unoriginal and boring they most assuredly are not.

What's your awareness level on these two films? Have you heard of Fur or Perfume? And what would it take to make you interested in getting to the theater to see them?

For more on Fur, check out Ryan's review of the film, and Kim's review from Telluride.