'Fur': Strange Fiction Reaches A Real Truth

Nicole Kidman and a most furry Robert Downey Jr. in Steven Shainberg's elegiac tribute to Diane Arbus.
Nicole Kidman and a most furry Robert Downey Jr. in Steven Shainberg's elegiac tribute to Diane Arbus. (By Abbot Genser -- Picturehouse)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 17, 2006

The director Steven Shainberg confronts the fact police head-on at the beginning of "Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus." In a disclaimer that opens the film, he announces that "Fur" is not a historical biography but "a tribute" in which he has invented fictional characters to represent Arbus's inner life.

Literalists and anyone else looking for the Encyclopaedia Britannica version of Arbus's life may want to read Patricia Bosworth's 1984 biography (on which "Fur" is loosely based), which presents a rich, detailed account of the life and career of an extraordinary artist. But artists themselves -- or anyone willing to travel with Shainberg through myriad metaphoric rabbit holes and symbolic trapdoors -- will be well rewarded by this bold, even brave meditation on the birth of creative genius. "Fur" will drive the fact-checkers crazy, but what it lacks in historical truth it makes up for in sheer audacity and, as the subtitle suggests, imagination.

Nicole Kidman -- prim and ramrod straight -- plays Arbus as a young wife and mother in 1958, having been raised in privilege in Manhattan and now assisting her husband, Allan, in a burgeoning commercial photography career. "Fur" doesn't chronicle the moment when Arbus decided to strike out on her own and make the sober, confrontational portraits of physically anomalous subjects that would become her trademark.

Instead Shainberg, working from a screenplay by Erin Cressida Wilson, focuses on the first stirrings of Arbus's artistic impulses and anxieties, stirrings that come to new life when Lionel Sweeney (Robert Downey Jr.) moves in upstairs.

When Arbus meets Sweeney -- who turns out to suffer from a rare disease causing his entire body to be covered with a mat of furlike hair -- they embark on a platonic affair, in which Sweeney introduces Arbus to his world of circus freaks and other marginalized characters, and she in turn discovers that it's in this world that she's truly at home. Like Shainberg's terrific "Secretary," in which Maggie Gyllenhaal played a masochistic assistant, "Fur" is about a woman coming into her own despite the taboos attached to her own desires. Even though she walks up to Sweeney's apartment, the journey is downward, into her own subconscious and sublimated urges.

Kidman's quiet, whispery performance gently brings viewers along on that journey, although her passivity begins to present a problem: "Fur" doesn't quite get at the will and ambition that must have fired Arbus's emergence as an artist. As for Downey, only an actor of his prodigious gifts would be able to create such an indelible character while completely hidden behind a curtain of hair. He's the original sexy beast, sinister and alluring. But the metaphoric point -- of two masked, hidden creatures liberating each other -- is lost during the inevitable climax of the third act.

That moment is a comedown, almost banal after the surreal psychic exploration that has gone before. But Shainberg remains uncompromising in his vision. "Fur" leaves too many questions, too many elisions, to qualify as even an imaginary portrait. It's more like an elegy to the demons and muses in every life who show us how to live more expansively, more expressively, with more courage. It's hard to believe that Arbus herself wouldn't have approved.

Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (122 minutes, at AMC Loews Dupont, AMC Lowes Shirlington and Landmark's Bethesda Row) is rated R for graphic nudity, some sexuality and profanity.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company