There’s a scene in “Fur” where photographer Diane Arbus, played by Nicole Kidman, is having sex with her husband, Alan (Ty Burrell), during a turbulent period in their marriage. His frustrations come to the fore, and he slams her head into the sofa, forcefully pinning her as he takes her from behind. She gets into it, and he asks, “What feels good about it?” Her: “It scares me.”

It’s this impulse — the thrill of dangerous sex, the attraction of going a bit too far — that fueled director Stephen Shainberg’s last film, 2002’s “Secretary,” and he aims for a similar charge here. His film is not a straight-up bio-pic of Diane Arbus — the Manhattan-based photographer of the 1950s and ’60s known for her portraits of “freaks” — but rather a magic-realist imagining of what drove Arbus in her art. Arbus photographed hermaphrodites, prostitutes, drag queens, giants, carnival folk — and the film imagines her discovering this world as a kind of modern fairy tale, a Manhattan art-world take on “Beauty and the Beast.”

“Fur” introduces us to Arbus circa 1958, before she had become a photo- grapher. The film posits her as a person dominated by others, whether that’s her loving husband, Alan, who uses her as his assistant in his photo studio, or her parents, who criticize and find fault, or her children, needy little beings demanding her attention. As in all post- feminist films — and this is definitely one — our heroine must reject the needs of others in order to discover her true self.

Director Stephen Shainberg
Run Time 122 minutes
Language English
Opens Opens May 26, 2007

In “Fur,” Arbus embarks on that journey when she becomes intrigued by her new neighbor moving in upstairs, Lionel Sweeney (Robert Downey Jr., currently on another post-rehab roll). She spots Lionel outside her window, his face hidden in an “elephant man”-style mask. Terrified and attracted at the same time, she screws up the courage to visit the mysterious Mr. Sweeney and ask to shoot his portrait.

She finds quickly she’s in deeper than she expected. Lionel is quick to recognize a woman looking for something; he barks orders, she complies, and soon Diane is sitting naked in a tub, blindfolded. When she is at last able to see, she finds that Lionel is an ex-freak show performer who suffers from hypertrichosis; his entire body is covered in long, animal-like hair. She takes it in stride, but it’s much harder for viewers to take seriously their tragic romance when Downey’s makeup job makes him look like the Cowardly Lion.

Once involved with Lionel, Diane finds a pathway to a hidden world of outsiders — dominatrixes, transvestites, dwarves and other “freaks.” As is common in American indie films, the freaks are a warm and welcoming family, and Diane blossoms in their presence, as opposed to the demands of marriage and motherhood that “repress” her. This is standard stuff, and Shainberg fails to add any nuance to this simplistic dichotomy. Kidman’s performance is equally obvious — she overdoes the twitchy, mousy, buttoned-up thing as Diane in the Arbus household, only to melt into a laughing, saucy, slightly louche woman in the presence of her freak friends. (Though like Ben Whishaw in “Perfume,” much of her performance seems to consist of simply touching or gazing at something and moaning in some sort of aesthete ecstasy.)

So much of “Fur” seems like run-of-the-mill, safe, standard, cultured art-house cinema — even the “transgressive” aspects, which are de rigueur these days. One often sees music critics writing about rock bands who’ve lost their energy by being overproduced on records. It’s about time we start noting this in cinema, too. It’s when a film like “Fur” can take a jarring, somewhat disturbing topic like this and render it toothless through the use of a sumptuous soundtrack, mannered performances and a glaze of exquisitely lit cinematography. The style does not serve the material. Put another way, the craft creates a comfort zone where there should instead be some discomfort.

Worse yet is that Shainberg has lost the sly sense of humor that made “Secretary” such a treat. For a film that has a romantic lead who looks like Chewbacca’s younger brother, this is a fatal deficiency. The last straw is the climactic bedroom scene between Lionel and Diane; it’s one of those arty, overly composed, overly edited “sex scenes” that pirouettes chastely around the matter at hand. God forbid that a film about a transgressive love affair should be, ahem, sexy.

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