Why do people wear masks? Is it to be something we are not for a night, like when we dress up on Halloween and Mardi Gras, or is it to hide our true nature from the world? The masks we sometimes wear to fit in with society can sometimes cloud the image of the true person we are. But sometimes the ways we choose to disguise ourselves can be confusing both to others that see us and even to ourselves as we strive to understand who we really are.
Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, starring Nicole Kidman and Robert Downey Jr. and directed by Steven Shainberg from a Erin Cressida Wilson script (the team who brought us 2002's Secretary), is an imaginative little film that explores the world of masks, among other things. Inspired by the life and work of photographer Diane Arbus, the film explores what "might have happened" as she experiences the artistic awakening that begins her career and rise to fame.
When we first meet Diane, she is checking in at a nudist colony in order to take some photographs. We can tell she is not that acclimated to her new career yet by her reaction when told she will have to doff her clothes to come in and meet her subjects. The story quickly flashes back to New York City three months earlier. Diane is a house-wifey assistant to her husband Allan Arbus, played by Ty Burrell. She helps around the studio, does all the household chores like fixing the toilet, but resists her husband's desire for her to "take some pictures of her own" with a camera he has bought her. We learn through backstory and scene that Diane has always been an odd girl, with her fascination of things that are "different" like dead people, broken places and things, or the sick or poor. But she struggles mightily to be the good wife and fit in with the High Society types that make up Alan's family. It is a battle that she will end up losing as she transforms and learns to let her freak flag fly.
Diane meets Lionel Sweeney, played by a magical Robert Downey Jr, who is a mysterious and, literally, masked man, who moves into the upstairs loft in their building. She goes up to meet him (with the intention of photographing him) after her insatiable curiosity for the weird is piqued after he clogs up her plumbing with gobs of hair flushed down the drain. We find out that Sweeney suffers from a condition called Hypertrichosis and is covered all over his body with extremely fast growing hair. In fact, he looks like a Wookie. After a delightfully uncomfortable exchange, Lionel unmasks himself to Diane, and they begin down the road of an intense, if complex relationship. In effect, Lionel becomes Diane's Muse, helping her to embrace her artistic talent and her fascination of things that are weird and different. Their love balances sexual tension with artistic connection and often delves into the realms of exhibitionism. In the end, Diane helps Lionel, just like he has helped her.
The highlight of this film is the nuanced performance of Kidman and Downey Jr. as their characters fall in love. The screen chemistry between them is incredible. The relationship is not consummated in normal ways (in fact some scenes seem downright fetishistic) but it is powerful and human all the same. Evoking allusions to Beauty and the Beast and Alice in Wonderland, the film does a great job of exploring the subjects of taboos, forbidden love, and platonic vs. sexual relationships.
I think Shainberg did a fantastic job of directing the film. I really liked the overall look of the film from a cinematography and art department point of view. In one sequence Shainberg defines the character of "High Society" with an interesting juxtaposition of rich people eating, smoking, and drinking at a party. Production Designer Amy Danger and Art Director Nick Ralbovsky really shine when the camera winds up the wrought iron staircase to peer into Lionel's apartment. It is stuffed full of oddities and antiquities that you would expect to be collected from working with a traveling freak show.
When I first started watching this film I didn't know much about Diane Arbus, and I thought it was going to be just a re-hash of Kidman's Virginia Woolf biopic The Hours. But I ended up really loving it. I was really pleased with the award-worthy performances of Kidman and Downey Jr., the Lynchian quirkiness of Shainberg's direction, and the overall visual look of the film. The Thematic selling points of being artistically born-again and embracing the freakier side of things was nice, too.
Give Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, a chance. Although a tad bit on the eccentric side for some, it leaves you feeling warmly satisfied.
Neil Norman is a freelance writer and a graduate of the University of Central Florida. Neil also works on independent film productions.