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'Fur' falls prey to beauty over beast

A few years ago, the director Steven Shainberg and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson gave us ‘‘Secretary,’’ the story of an office assistant whose duties included receiving spankings from her boss. Now Shainberg and Wilson have moved on to another tale of a sexual surrender in which a glorified helper finds herself in a sexual noodle with a weird man. The woman happens to be the photographer Diane Arbus and the man is covered, from scalp to sole, in hair.

But for ‘‘Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus’’ to work (and it does not), the movie needs to exalt the freakish union, to eroticize it. This movie, a sideways biography and a companion piece to ‘‘Secretary,’’ is too high-minded and sterilized for that. The film’s interest doesn’t reside with Arbus’s iconic photos (‘‘Fur’’ is set in 1958, years before her artistic watershed). It imagines what might have inspired her to take them.

Apparently, it was a wookiee. Yes, as played by Nicole Kidman, Diane Arbus is a beauty who lives downstairs from Lionel (Robert Downey Jr.), a gentle beast who lures the budding photographer to his apartment by clogging her pipes with a key, along with a wad of his hair.

The movie’s troubles start right away with the casting. While Kidman is as exquisite as ever, her alabaster complexion and statuesque carriage are the opposite of Arbus’s dark features and small frame. Maggie Gyllenhaal, who was so good in ‘‘Secretary,’’ might have made more sense. But the mania for Kidman continues — Hollywood will put her in anything. I await the possibility of seeing her as Frederick Douglass. In ‘‘Fur,’’ there’s no heft to her interpretation of Arbus. This Diane is very much a girl eager to flee a bland domestic world, which seems about right since what Shainberg and Wilson have in mind is a kind of ‘‘Alice in Wonderland’’ variation.

The film is set in 1958 Manhattan and focuses on Arbus’s life as the assistant of her husband, Allan (Ty Burrell), in their successful fashion-photography business. By this point, Arbus was a trained photographer in her own right and Allan’s business equal, and she’d been venturing out to take her own pictures. But, condescendingly, the film wants to be about a mother and housewife’s liberation and artistic self-discovery. (Yes, that.)

To provide a sense of how pent up she is, the filmmakers give us a scene in which Diane steps onto a balcony and undoes her restricting A-line dress to let some air in and let out some hint of sex for the masked passerby below. It’s Lionel, and soon an affair begins. Is it sexual? Psychological? Emotional? The film is too stifling for that. (Alas, it’s like being stuck in a big A-line skirt.) At the very least, their relationship is tutorial, with Lionel’s cluttered treasure chest of an apartment serving as a haven for some of the human sideshow subjects in Arbus’s future famous photographs. Whatever the relationship is about, Allan, jealous of his rival, grows a beard. It’s the film’s deftest psychological touch, and Diane doesn’t notice.

Yet Kidman has been instructed to appear curious in every shot, and she finds a hundred ways of doing that. The first half of her performance is actually terrific, all fluttering eyes and inchoate wonder. But the actress never makes that crucial transition from Alice to Arbus. There’s no spark of arousal. When Lionel introduces Diane to a dominatrix at work, Kidman might as well be looking at flowers. The film does nail the vanity that courses through many of her pictures, however, the ‘‘Look at me. I’m with the freaks.’’

In theory, there’s nothing wrong with this unorthodox approach to Arbus — attempting to explain her from the inside out. (In its way, Harmony Korine’s freakfest ‘‘Gummo’’ is a better Arbus movie.) The trouble is that Shainberg and Wilson don’t connect their conceit to anything artistically enlightening, erotic, or truly deviant. You wish they had put more of Jean Cocteau’s outré grace into their beauty-and-the-beast idea. In ‘‘Fur,’’ when Lionel entreats Diane to give him a trim, what perversity there was turns sweet and bathetic. And the movie officially becomes the one thing Arbus’s photography refused to be: normal.

Wesley Morris can be reached at His blog is at!/ae/movies/blog.

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