In this follow-up to Secretary, director Steven Shainberg continues his fascination with the dirty thoughts of pretty women, using famed documentary photographer Diane Arbus as the inspiration for a fictional 50s housewife character on the cusp of discovering her inner Bettie Page. When we first see her, 'Diane' is riding a bus down a lonely highway and dreamily scribbling freak-fetish words into a notebook: "Slaughterhouses...albinos..." The newly freak-curious heroine is on a quest to visit Camp Venus, a nudist colony where she will dip her toe, and which is presented to us as some kind of happy, grass-green Brigadoon of free-swinging penises. One man cheerfully mows the lawn au naturel. The film both begins and ends at this camp, and it's in these bookends that you can spot some clear signs of trouble for Fur. Nicole Kidman has never been a shrinking violet when it comes to nude work, but the requisite shots of her during these scenes are noticeably ungenerous and awkwardly shot, strongly suggesting the use of imperfect body doubles and some kind of director-star battle that ended in an editing-room stalemate.
Kidman is also only half-present during key points throughout the rest of the film. She sits stoically quiet and stone-faced during scenes which re-hash the kind of prurient, hand-in-pants question-and-answer sessions that appeared in Shainberg's last film. "Did you ever show your nanny your tits?" she's asked at one point by Robert Downey's upstairs-neighbor character, who guides her into a circus-tent world and who has a hair-face like Michael J. Fox in Teen Wolf. His shedding hair clogs the plumbing of his neighbors, which first causes saintly mother and wife Diane to step away from her domestic bliss one evening to knock on his door. The character, named Lionel, is invented out of whole cloth, like much else in the film and serves as the bridge Arbus the Nice Lady will cross to become Arbus the Artist. Watching Kidman interact with Downey, you ask yourself -- did she think she was signing on to do a real film about Diane Arbus and only too late found herself in this Skinemax interpretation of Beauty and the Beast?
It's also possible that the apparent tension between Kidman and Shainberg may have resulted not from misleading but from his regimenting of every scene with the closed fist of a fetishist, choking off all possibility of spontaneity. At one point, Kidman is forced to walk slowly out onto a balcony, stop, and then tug at the fabric of her dress in a director-mandated fit of womanly passion. You can practically hear Shainberg instructing her through a megaphone from off-camera: "Walk slower! Now look up!" For all the hoopla, Kidman's last frankly sexual film, Eyes Wide Shut, was a relatively vanilla exercise about the fretting of two bored professionals over their own sputtering sex lives. It was voyeuristic of course, but mostly concerned about examining the upside of marital fidelity and cautionary about the perils of over-exploration. Like the stranded astronaut staring into the camera lens-face of Hal 9000 or the parole board members blinking blankly at Alex de Large, the film suggested a terror of the unknown, perverted psyche and a desire to conquer it. Fur, by contrast, is an incomparably weirder movie about sex, because watching it feels at times like watching a tightly-structured sexual fantasy in the happening.
It's understandably hard for Kidman to pull off dialogue like "I shouldn't do things like that....I'm your wife!" because we can see the machinery behind her eyes as she speaks. She's too smart an actress to buy into lines like that, and so we are always conscious of watching a "performance" as the movie goes on. But again, this movie is patently determined to draw attention to its artificiality. Scenes where Arbus, the burgeoning photographer, begins to photograph the freaks of Manhattan have the quality of a carefully constructed dream. We see a midget singing the Frank Sinatra standard "Dreamer's Holiday" and we repeatedly gaze at an armless person who gets by with no arms. At one point, Arbus opens an attic door in her apartment and watches gleefully as an entire circus full of freaks come bounding down the steps into her life. This kind of over-stylization forces us to examine the film on its surface level instead of letting us get anywhere close to the characters and their interpretation of these events.
Anyone who has read Patricia Bosworth's riveting and cinematic biography of Arbus, which was supposedly the source material for this film, will come away floored at the director's decision to take the 'bio' out of the biopic. Although very few surviving members of Arbus' inner circle or family would cooperate with the book, Bosworth was able to piece together a compelling portrait that shows us the avant garde photographer using her family money, connections, ties to the art community and other resources to push daring and disturbing photographs onto the pages of the most important magazines of her day. Her personal life during her most creative period consisted of haunting city morgues to burn up rolls of film shooting corpses, confronting derelicts in Times Square in the middle of the night, going to see Tod Browning's Freaks over and over in a theater, smoking endless amounts of pot and communing with the other great photographers of 60s Manhattan. Steven Shainberg's attempt to roll all of that freaky experience up into one Grand Guignol hairball-svengali character isn't sufficient. I still think Kidman has it in her to deliver a great performance as Diane Arbus. I look forward to it.
Also check out Kim's festival review of the film.