Kidman is awesome as she charts legendary photographer Diane Arbus' artistic journey
By Jimmy Gillman
The journey from 1950’s traditional housewife to world renowned photographer is the basis for this strikingly original imagining of the road taken by Diane Arbus, the talented American artist whose exploration of people outside the boundaries became a hallmark of the postmodern movement.
With another superb performance by Nicole Kidman, “Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus” accomplishes this task in unique fashion, condensing its speculations on Arbus’ transformation from housewife and helper to independent, groundbreaking artist to a period of three months, which are used to symbolize a personal metamorphosis that took place over many years.
Clearly in this way director Steven Shainberg’s film is anything but a standard, chronologically plotted biopic. And although this approach requires events be fictionalized, “Fur,” remains completely credible in depicting the birth of an artist in general and the emotional voyage of Arbus in particular.
Entering the world as Diane (pronounced “Dee-an”) Nemerov in 1923, Arbus was the second of three children born to David and Gertrude Nemerov, owners of Russek’s, a highly successful and posh department store in New York City.
Shy and retiring, she led an insulated life, shielded from the Great Depression by her family’s wealth. In 1941, she married her childhood sweetheart, Alan Arbus. Both had a deep interest in photography, and several years later Diane’s father put them in business taking fashion photographs for his department store.
Shortly after, the Arbuses established their own commercial photography studio, with Diane acting as art director and Alan as photographer. Their work appeared in magazines such as Glamour, Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue and others.
Increasingly restless and longing to embrace a world outside of the one in which she grew up and was now part of (the Arbuses had two daughters of their own), Diane sought a deeper embrace of forces neither she or her family fully understood. In 1956, Arbus left the business to pursue her own photography. She separated from her husband in 1958. Though they remained apart, they did not divorce until 1969, two years before she committed suicide.
None of this is covered in “Fur,” but it helps to be in possession of the biographical particulars as background to the film’s imaginary events. Those events find the Arbuses living in New York in 1958, when Diane’s emerging artistic and emotional rebirth was reaching a crescendo.
In Shainberg's film, that process is capped off by the appearance of a mysterious newcomer to the building named Lionel Sweeney (Robert Downey, Jr.). Their relationship touches off in Arbus nothing less than a mythological death and rebirth in ways that are alternately hypnotic, erotic, dramatic and surreal, often captured in unusual ways by cinematographer Bill Pope.
Offbeat, but alluring, “Fur” is a film that speaks to grownups, captivating in its ability to illustrate one woman’s fascinating evolution and a showcase for Kidman’s radiant and soulful interpretation of that event.