It’s important to take bad pictures. It’s the bad ones that have to do with what you’ve never done before. They can make you recognize something you hadn’t seen in a way that will make you recognize it when you see it again.
Diane Arbus (Nicole Kidman) is looking for something. According to Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, she seeks connection and understanding, relationships with her photographic subjects. She doesn’t know this as she begins her work, but, the film presents her as restless, haunted, even a little afraid.
This look is in part a function of Kidman’s breathy embodiment: she’s pale and devastatingly slender, her figure prim, almost encased in the perfect pink or blue dresses she wears in the film’s early scenes. But the look is also conditioned by the film’s effort to make Arbus comprehensible, to gloss her notorious secrets. Fur makes her shifting self-image visible in recognizable terms (changed hair, changed demeanor), but her photos help her keep her self-preserving distance.
The detail that best describes this distance — calculated and fragile — is Diane’s camera, a Rolleiflex. Fur imagines how came to use this particular instrument, a boxy device held low, designed so you look down into the lens at the top of the camera, rather than through a lens straight ahead. The Rollei here allows Arbus a particular engagement with her subjects (as well as determining the squarish shape of her images), making her picture-taking a dynamic process: she looks up at her subject and then down at the lens as she sets up her shots. Her perspective is not static but a matter of movement, her relationships with her subjects in flux even as the photo captures moments.
Fur shows this camera repeatedly, as Diane clutches it, sets it down, carries it with her as a kind of ticket into her new life. Her old life, as the wife of fashion photographer Allan Arbus (Ty Burrell, who is terrific here) is depicted initially as complicated, if restrictive. She works as his assistant, attending to models’ makeup and outfits, but also handling, loading, and prepping the cameras between shots. She knows the business of posing and arranging, shooting and developing, so that her decision to make her own portraits, to work with other sorts of models, those deemed “imperfect” rather than “perfect,” is also a decision to make a different sort of art, to express herself rather than sell product.
This is not to say that Arbus’ work didn’t become a kind of “product,” with a distinctive stamp and value. But Fur, set during three months in 1958, presents her decision through a personal journey, showing the process by which she comes to leave her husband and career with him. At first, her relationship with Allan is only vaguely strange: they work together arranging and composing human models by day; at night, they share a bed and confess “secrets,” but Diane’s frustration is registered in sexual terms: she kisses his wrist and he laughs, uncomfortable. And so she takes up her search, finding herself in another way. That is, Diane finds herself in another man, and an excessively metaphorical man at that.
The fabricated character Lionel (Robert Downey Jr.) — not based on a real person, as is Allan or Diane — moves in upstairs from the Arbuses and immediately begins to seduce her. He goes so far as to drop a key to his apartment into her plumbing. This salutation provides the film’s most bracing moment, as Diane digs into fix the pipes, reaching into goo and banging away, as her daughter looks on. As Diane makes her way upstairs to confront her neighbor, she sees him in various guises — in shadows, with a bag over his head, as well as a mask — before she sees him, a reveal that emulates her look into herself.
Lionel becomes the center of Diane’s transition from assistant to artist, encouraging and challenging her to leave behind the familiar. On one level, Lionel is a rather unsubtle symbol, covered head to foot in fur, and so suggesting the negotiation of her relationship with her father, the famous New York City furrier David Nemerov (Harris Yulin). He also represents her self-investigation, though this figuring is so insistently “straight,” as it were, that it obscures Arbus’ erratic, compelling challenge to such restrictions. While the romance makes her self-transformation legible, it also reduces it, remakes it a fairy tale (most obviously, Beauty and the Beast). Lionel serves multiple representational functions, at once Arbus’ own desires, her repressed sexuality, her passions, teasing her into articulation, literally placing her in a tub, to “reveal” her.
But while he is demanding, he is also at times painfully vulnerable. Lionel is, Diane learns early, dying of his “condition,” which puts an odd deadline on his threat and promise, as well as on her determination to see and even save him in a photo, to make a record of their relationship in art. On another, almost-the-same level, Lionel is also emblematic of all the unusual subjects Arbus photographed, from the transvestites, nudists, and Jewish giant, to the big-eyed twins, Mexican dwarf, and senior citizens at a dance. He invites her to take his portrait, and as she prepares to do so, their relationship comes to signify the relationships she developed with her actual subjects. She took many photos of each in order to come up with the one photo that would be published or displayed.
For the viewer who doesn’t know so much about Arbus, this biographical point (the multiple photos, the amount of time she spent with subjects) will be lost in Fur. What you see here is the specific instance of Lionel, who appears by turns demanding, taunting, seductive, and frail. Intrigued when he invites her to meet his friends — a cellist without arms, a prostitute, some other folks who work as circus “freaks” — Diane stops attending to her usual routines (say, cooking and cleaning), and starts listening to jazz, leaving her hair uncombed, and pulling her Rollei out from under her bed to carry it with her up the stairs to Lionel’s apartment.
Diane’s change affects her family, alarming her two daughters and disappointing her imperious mother Gertrude (Jane Alexander), who advises her to stay home and “Be a little portrait photographer.” But her bond with Lionel, even as it takes her outside her home and neighborhood, is also limiting, in that he is, for all his furriness, a very regular heterosexual object. Fur endeavors to interpret Arbus as she interpreted her subjects, producing a deeply personal, idiosyncratic impression. But in making her biography understandable, if “imaginary,” it also makes her work — so thrillingly strange — a bit too familiar.