The subtitle of “Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus” serves as fair warning to unsuspecting souls expecting a full-fledged biopic about the late, now practically legendary photographer. A defiantly outre take on how the subject transformed herself from an upper-class New York housewife to a singular artist, pic is impressively crafted and acted but far too narrowly and benignly conceived to satisfy even on its own terms. Despite toplined names of Nicole Kidman and Robert Downey Jr., Picturehouse faces a hard road pushing this beyond urban arthouses.
Like her suicidal contemporary Sylvia Plath, Arbus has tempted filmmakers for years. Director Steven Shainberg and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson, who previously teamed on the not entirely dissimilar “Secretary,” have hatched a fantasy centered on a single issue: What enabled a 35-year-old wife and mother in 1958 Manhattan to abandon a life devoted to fulfilling others’ expectations and locate her hitherto undiscovered artistic self?
It’s a resonant subject, one boldly but oddly cast here in a beauty-and-the-beast format that provides the film with far more metaphorical weight than dramatic force, creating a sense of stasis that impeccable technique and impressive acting cannot overcome.
Eye-catching opening has the beauteous Arbus (Kidman), whose first name is pointedly pronounced “Dee-ann,” arriving at a nudist camp to shoot some pictures. An entirely naked middle-aged couple welcome her warmly but insist she disrobe as well.
Cut to three months earlier, when Diane is hosting a fashion show put on by her wealthy furrier father (Harris Yulin). Although not overly rebellious or resentful, Diane is clearly discomfited with her role as obedient daughter and assistant to her commercial photographer husband Allan (Ty Burrell, quite good).
Conveniently, the key to Diane’s true self awaits in the form of her mysterious new upstairs neighbor. The viewer’s curiosity is made to match Diane’s own, as she dares to investigate the premises; once she meets the hooded and masked occupant, he asks her to take something off — that is, to remove some vestment of propriety.
Then it’s the neighbor’s turn to reveal himself. Lionel (Downey) is afflicted with a rare disease that has covered his entire body with hair, or fur, as the title insists. The flowing locks cascade magnificently on and around his face, courtesy of a superior job by the Stan Winston Studio. The thick pelt requires Downey to communicate only with his eyes and voice, which he does to a mesmerizing degree, making credible Diane’s fascination and willingness to follow him over to the “dark side,” where her talent lies.
Diane and Lionel finally reach a point where they can literally reveal their entire naked selves to one another. But the film makes this a curiously prosaic achievement, one without palpable pain or price. Given what actually happened to Diane Arbus five years later, it would have seemed incumbent on the filmmakers to have at least planted a seed to indicate the real-life downside to the subject’s choice of artistic self-fulfillment. As it stands, this is a Diane Arbus film with a happy ending, assuming a nudist camp is a preferable destination to a morgue.
That’s not to say that “Fur” does not remain intriguing much of the way, nor that Shainberg has failed to realize exactly the film he wanted to make. The images are precise and often bracing, with Bill Pope’s camera ever on the prowl through the mysterious wonderland of production designer Amy Danger’s set for Lionel’s apartment, which contrasts in its strangeness to the more familiar trappings of late ’50s Gotham.
Sporting dark brown hair, Kidman responds with quicksilver subtlety to the progressive stages of her character’s journey. But since “Diane” is a largely reactive role, Downey, playing the character calling the dramatic shots, in addition to boasting a far more spectacular hairdo, is able to dominate the picture while speaking his lines with a calm, low-pitched self-confidence and with sparkling eyes that provide the focal points for a great many scenes.
Carter Burwell’s frisky score, with its inventive orchestrations and strong sense of movement, is a big plus.