Monday, November 19, 2007

A Fur Lined Prison

Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (2006) by Steve Shainberg

I understand why this film might initially be perceived as off putting; it is not a traditional biopic with scenes from the life of this extraordinary woman. My first impulse was to dismiss Nicole Kidman in the lead role because she was too pretty and too fragile looking to play Diane Arbus. That early prejudice was soon banished when I actually sat down to watch it.

The film by director Steve Shainberg and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson is a beguiling, unusual exploration into the workings of Arbus' mind as a photographer of the unusual, the strangely beautiful, the frightening. Please click here to see some of her photographs.

Diane Arbus (1923 - 1971) was born Diane Nemerov into a wealthy Jewish family that made its fortune from the fur trade as furriers. Diane, as portrayed here by Kidman, is a fragile, sensitive misfit with an alluded to, but unexplained, history of mental health issues who is unhappily working as an assistant in her husband Allan Arbus' (Ty Burrell) photo studio.

Allan, then a successful fashion photographer but later an actor, shoots innocuous fashion ads and Diane assists him by accessorizing the models and hosting fur fashion shows in their home. This they do for her affluent parents David and Gertrude Nemerov who are frostily, and effectively, portrayed by Harris Yulin and Jane Alexander. They seem bewildered and perhaps even affronted by Diane's personal demons. Diane is clearly uneasy in this world of artifice and fashion despite her pert dresses and gently feminine demeanor.

Soon Diane's attentions turn to the mysterious Lionel (Robert Downey) who has moved to a flat three flights above the Arbuses. Lionel, a fictitious creation, is a man, likely a former circus performer, covered in dog-like fur all over his body. We see intriguing, scratchy b&w film clips of Lionel hooded, led around in front of a roaring crowd. It seems that Lionel and his apartment are a metaphor for Diane's mind, for the repressed compartments of her mind: the obsessions, interests, sexual feelings, and passions which she cannot exhibit to the others in her life.

Production designer Amy Danger has created a beautiful, exotic and strange place where Lionel (and, in effect, Diane's mind and spirit) resides. It is a place where she slowly comes to know herself better at Lionel's instigation. Shainberg has striven to create an Alice in Wonderland "through the rabbit hole" world of wonders complete with a snowy white pet rabbit, framed b&w photos of circus "freaks", a workshop where Lionel makes (what exactly?) pelts of hair sewn together, a soothing pool in which Diane immerses herself almost like her subconscious.

Through her relationship with Lionel she begins to explore her interest in freaks. He introduces her to dwarfs, transvestites, circus performers, drag queens, people born with deformities like the armless woman who lives across the street, nudist camp devotees. At night, she leaves her home and her children and wanders the streets with a hooded Lionel in an exhilarating, frightening journey into the homes of people she is intrigued and frightened by.

Eventually she invites Allan to meet Lionel. She also invites her new friends to meet her family - they travel through a trapdoor leading directly from Lionel's apartment to her own - calling Dr. Freud, Dr. Freud please. Is this Diane introducing her art to her family and intimates? If so, her parents are horrified, Allan feels threatened, her daughter Grace is mortified and angry. Still Diane cannot keep away from Lionel or what he represents, her dark side, her forbidden thoughts. In seeming desperation, Allan grows a bushy beard as if to compete with Lionel's "fur".

But to no avail, Diane is completely drawn into Lionel's world, perhaps into madness, into a world which frightens and exults her. Lionel asks that Diane shave him clean (so that he may appear normal?) Is this what Arbus' work does, it makes her subjects "normal" to observers?

But Lionel is dying and when he does, it appears that Diane has achieved complete independence and the suggestion is that she leaves her family to pursue her art (I don't know if this is historically accurate, or metaphorically accurate, in terms of pursuing her art). The couple did divorce in 1959 which is very close to the time that this film is set.

Not sufficiently recognized when it was released, this film demonstrates how brave and ambitious Nicole Kidman is as an actress as well as the enormous talents of Steve Shainberg.

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