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‘Fur’ doesn’t shed much light on Arbus

Steven Shainberg’s heavy-handed story simplifies the artist’s journey into Arbus being drawn out of her shell by one very hairy man.
/ Source: The Associated Press

If you’re a purist on film biographies, “Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus” will ruffle your feathers.

If you feel any artist or public figure’s life is fair game for a filmmaker to co-opt and contort to his own liking, you may like the feel of “Fur,” a moody hybrid of reality and outrageous fantasy.

Director Steven Shainberg and co-stars Nicole Kidman and Robert Downey Jr. have to be commended for their audacity in presenting a make-believe snapshot of photographer Arbus rather than spinning yet another tale of a repressed artist busting loose and finding her inner light.

But the film’s central conceit — a fictional, beauty-and-the-beast affair between Arbus and a neighbor covered head to toe with hair — slowly becomes just a cheat as Shainberg and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson concoct their strangely imaginary portrait.

It’s beautifully filmed and acted, with an air of Gothic horror blended into the stylishness of 1950s Manhattan sophisticates and the era’s general, stifling hollowness that Arbus rebelled against.

For a film that takes such a flight of fancy, though, “Fur” is surprisingly stifling itself.

As Arbus, Kidman is as dour as she was playing Virginia Woolf in “The Hours,” though nowhere near as interesting. As Arbus’ shaggy-dog of a lover, Downey provides sardonic humor early on but eventually becomes just as gloomy as Kidman.

The filmmakers never ignite the sort of soul-mate spark that fired the sadomasochistic romance of Shainberg and screenwriter Wilson’s twisted 2002 film “Secretary.”

In “Fur,” Shainberg and Wilson appropriate factual elements from Patricia Bosworth’s “Diane Arbus: A Biography.” The film quickly establishes that wife and mother Arbus has outgrown her role as assistant to her husband (Ty Burrell), a celebrated fashion photographer.

The meek Arbus also is seeking fortitude to revolt against her privileged upbringing and haughty parents (Jane Alexander and Harris Yulin), who run a fashionable furrier business.

Good timing for a mysterious, masked neighbor named Lionel (Downey) to move in to the apartment upstairs with a collection of curios and oddities worthy of P.T. Barnum. Once a carnival attraction for his all-pervasive hair, Lionel becomes friend, facilitator, puzzle and object of intrigue for the yearning Arbus, who continually carries a camera about awaiting that moment of inspiration that will determine where her career will lead.

Arbus was best known for her freak and fringe photos — dwarfs, giants, loners on the lower strata of society. She captured images that could make the grotesque out of the ordinary and the ordinary out of the grotesque.

That aesthetic is reflected in the Fellini-esque world of little people, armless women and transvestites that Lionel introduces Arbus to in “Fur.” But the fairy-tale and “Alice in Wonderland” symbolism the filmmakers employ becomes heavy-handed, and “Fur” leaves behind a vague taste of disservice to Arbus and her bold break from the norm.

In a sense, the Arbus schooled by Lionel is as passive as the woman who had been under her family’s thumb. “Fur” essentially says it took Bigfoot moving into the building to break Arbus out of her shell.

Is it more interesting and entertaining than a straightforward biopic of Arbus would have been? Maybe. Is it more illuminating? Probably not.