Note: This review originally ran during the Telluride Film Festival. It is being run again in conjunction with the film's release.
Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, is a beautiful, elegant, poem of a film, and yet, like Arbus (Nicole Kidman) herself, it's so strange it almost defies description. Arbus (whose first name is pronounced "Dee-Ann") is simultaneously one of the most celebrated and controversial photographers of our time. Arbus grew up in a wealthy Jewish family, amidst a life filled with privilege that she viewed largely as a prison. Overshadowed by her older brother, who grew up to become the famous poet Howard Nemerov, Arbus chafed against the expectations her family had for her to be an obedient, compliant child and, later, an equally socially acceptable wife and mother.
Fur is not a historical portrait of Arbus; rather, as the title suggests, it is an imagining of what might have been going on inside Arbus' mind at the time she broke free of the constraints of 1950s wife-and-motherhood to fully realize her own potential as an artist. Arbus and her husband Allan (who later became an actor, most famously playing Major Sidney Freedman on M.A.S.H.) owned a photography business, which made much of its income shooting advertising campaigns for the fur company owned by Diane's wealthy parents.
Diane's husband Allan was the photographer, and she was his assistant. Although he always gave her credit for the creativity she brought to their mutual work and the contributions she made, for a woman of vast intelligence and creativity, with the heat of rebellion and passion churning inside her, one can imagine, as this film does, how restrained Arbus must have felt being relegated to a mere assistant.
Fur explores, by crossing and blurring the lines of fantasy and reality, Arbus' transition from assistant to artist. In the film, she meets and befriends her upstairs neighbor, Leon (Robert Downey, Jr.), who is himself one of the freaks to whom she has always been drawn. Through this relationship (whether it's real or imagined, we are never given to know, and it doesn't seem to matter), Arbus frees herself from the societal conventions that have restrained her for her entire life, and taps into the creative free spirit that had been trapped dormant inside her for so long.
Arbus' body of work, which largely focused on people on the fringes of society -- transvestites, giants, midgets, and other people who might have once populated the freak sideshows of touring circuses -- has been called brilliant by some and degrading by others. One of her most famous portraits, Identical Twins, was paid homage by Stanley Kubrick in The Shining, when he recreated her portrait of identical twins standing, shoulders touching, one with a half smile and one almost frowning, as ghosts met by young Danny in the creepy Overlook Hotel. Although Fur doesn't explore the later development of Arbus as a photographer and artist, it does give us an imagined window into the perspective that made her work so unique.
Fur is based on the book Diane Arbus: A Biography. Access to Arbus' work and life has been tightly controlled by her older daughter Doon since Arbus committed suicide in 1971; it is only recently that Doon finally allowed an exhibit of her mother's work to be curated and presented to the public. Through Fur, we get a peek at what Arbus might have been like at this pivotal point in her life. Kidman and Downey, Jr. give spectacular performances; Kidman, in particular, captures the pent-up passion that drove Arbus; this may well be my favorite performance from her yet. The film is visually spectacular, overlapping worlds of fantasy and reality until we're never quite sure what's real and what's not. Arbus, as a character study, is a fascinating artist to examine more closely. Director Steven Shainberg (Secretary) , who grew up surrounded by Arbus' photographs in his parents home (although he never met her himself) struggled for some 15 years to get permission to make a film about Arbus. And with Fur, he has done a fine job paying tribute to this intriguing and enigmatic artist.
For another take on Fur, read Ryan Stewart's review of the film.