The seductively titled Fur purports to be an imaginary fairy tale about photographer Diane Arbus, specifically the period when she gave up working as an assistant for her fashion-photog husband and ventured into the world to create her punch-in-the-face pictures of the unusual and the freakish. Her photographs of Siamese twins, giants, dwarves, and drag queens have a childlike, cruel fascination, and Nicole Kidman, who plays Arbus, succeeds in seeming childlike, but she does not capture her subject’s innocent sadism. In place of this necessary ingredient, director Steven Shainberg and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson subject us to over-determined, self-consciously eccentric visual and aural references to Alice in Wonderland and Beauty and the Beast while Arbus falls steadily in love with the fictional Lionel (Robert Downey Jr.), a flirty man covered from head to foot in hair.
In what seems like a sequel to Birth, we are treated to endless silent close-ups of Kidman’s hard, porcelain face struggling to signal girlish repression and longing for release. As always, she works strenuously to communicate her feelings, but her look of strained anxiety, though mildly disturbing, is resolutely inexpressive. This is very much a vehicle for Kidman, and the script has been shaped so that her Arbus lusts for attention—as if she wanted to be a cover girl, not a photographer. In the meantime, a rather silly love story is built for her and Downey (the scene where she shaves off his fur and they stand naked facing each other, narcissist versus narcissist, is genuinely, though inadvertently, creepy and amusing).
With grinding, remorseless predictability, Arbus was drawn to the ugliest images she could find. Judging from her photographs (which are not shown in Fur), she seemed to stare at people as if waiting for them to pick their nose or trip and fall; she wanted them to reveal their gaucherie, their grotesque physicality, their hideous unlovability. The photographs are impressive, but they’re also enervating and depressing, so that Arbus seems one of the most understandable artistic suicides. What would Arbus have made of Kidman in Fur? My guess is that she would have recognized a Vogue fashion model when she saw one and sent Kidman over to be photographed by her husband. Then she might have envisioned a film of her life with Lili Taylor, directed by David Lynch, in black-and-white and with no sentimental movie romance in sight.