Fur (United States, 2006)
Fur uses the real-life name and some of the real-life background of photographer Diane Arbus (Nicole Kidman) as the launching point for an entirely fictional romance. The movie is open about its aims and doesn't try to hide the fact that this is not intended to be biographical in nature. Although Diane's transformation from her husband's assistant to her own person is represented in Fur, the majority of the screenplay concerns a relationship between the budding photographer and her upstairs neighbor, an ex-circus freak. When describing Lionel Sweeney (Robert Downey Jr.), hirsute is an understatement. This is a Beauty & the Beast romance between Nicole Kidman and Chewbacca.
It's 1958 and Diane is leading an unfulfilled life as the stylist and assistant to her husband, Allan (Ty Burrell), who runs a family portrait studio. She has a wild streak - one night she goes out on their New York apartment balcony and unbuttons her blouse, daring residents in nearby buildings to look at her. Mostly, however, she plays the dutiful wife and loving mother. Then Lionel moves in upstairs. She is immediately fascinated by him - a man whose features are hidden by a mask and who rarely leaves his home. Fascination leads to obsession. She wants to photograph him. Eventually, she understands the reason for his reticence to show himself, but that only increases her interest in him.
Fur's misstep, and it is significant, is in the creature design of Lionel. The resemblance to Chewbacca is uncanny. He also looks a little like Lon Chaney's Wolf Man. This is unforgivable with today's technology and unfortunate because it adds an unintentional level of camp to scenes that aren't intended to be absurd or comedic. Director Steven Shainberg (Secretary) has admitted that Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast is an inspiration; one wonders why he didn't model the creature more after the title character of that movie. Beneath the costume, however, Robert Downey Jr.'s acting is fine, and he and Nicole Kidman develop a gentle chemistry. The age-old theme looms large: when it comes to love, looks don't always matter.
Sometimes it's hard to take the film's romance seriously because of the way Lionel appears. Of as much interest to the proceedings is Allan's reaction to his wife's infatuation. He's not oblivious to what's going on, but he loves and trusts his wife and wants what's best for her. At least at the beginning, he can't comprehend a physical relationship between Diane and Lionel (Wookie nookie?), but one senses his uncertainty growing as the unlikely pair spends more time together. His reaction? He grows a beard. Try as he might, however, he never manages to attain the shaggy look. He merely appears like a consumptive who has forgotten to shave for a long time.
A disclaimer at the beginning marks a pre-emptive strike against any who would pillory the film's historical lack of accuracy. It reads, in part: "This is a film about Diane Arbus, but it is not a historical biography…What you are about to see is a tribute to Diane: a film that invents characters and situations that reach beyond reality…" Shainberg's admitted goal with the movie is to explore the kind of circumstances that might have led Diane to opt out of her quiet marriage and become one of the most influential American photographers of the 20th century. In Shainberg's imagining, Lionel and Diane's interludes with him become the catalyst. Once he opens her eyes to the outside world and the contributions she can make to it through her photography, she is forever changed.
Obviously, Shainberg has a fondness for offbeat romances. His breakout picture, Secretary, was a tender love story steeped in self-mutilation and B&D. For his encore, he has now made a movie about a slender woman who falls in love with a guy who could be related to Cousin It. As peculiar as this latest premise sounds, Shainberg brings it to the screen with a degree of sympathy. Fur isn't as emotionally effective as Secretary but, like the previous film, it can at least claim the virtue of trying something different.
Fur (United States, 2006)
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Robert Downey Jr., Ty Burrell, Harris Yulin, Jane Alexander, Emmy Clarke, Genevieve McCarthy
Screenplay: Erin Cressida Wilson, inspired by the book Diane Arbus: A Biography by Patricia Bosworth
Cinematography: Bill Pope
Music: Carter Burwell
U.S. Distributor: Picturehouse