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Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus | Review

Not Polite to Stare

Kidman plays Alice in Wonderland for grownups

The slight crack of a whip could make just about anyone see red. The notion that a 50’s housewife having a mind of their own, or for that matter, being artistically more adventurous than the norm could make even the most supportive of husbands blush. While Secretary saw a woman’s will increasingly become stronger by each degrading moment, the same can also be said for this portrait within a portrait. Exhaling an air of originality into the biopic format, Steven Shainberg chooses to not play it safe when delivering a difficult to categorize exploration of the American photographer Diane Arbus. With Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, the filmmaker can be blamed for the overindulgence in a fantasy world and an impotent emotional output, but the film can be applauded for its style, technical merit, scrumptious exchanges between a pair of seasoned actors in top form and Shainberg’s attachment to and appreciation of a fellow artist. Even with the title-screen introduction, this is a mixed bag that many viewers won’t be able to make heads or tails from.

Flashback to an era where the desire to be more than an apron wearing, cookie baking mother and wife was consciously frowned upon. There apparently were few places for a person like Diane Arbus to co-exist, but photographic proof would state otherwise. Surrounded by fur coats and a disdain for her self exploration, the narrative explores the notion of the gravitational pull that was the direct cause for her photographic achievements. Based on the novel by Patricia Bosworth, Erin Cressida Wilson constructs a first half that sees Arbus drowning in class conformity, while the second half sees the emancipation concept taken very seriously – with the daydreaming/fantasy angle fully taking over the narrative. The film’s selling point is the secret garden full of portraits of people on the fringes of society make her abadon her former life and rejoice in her new found curiosity.

Loaded in symbolism and one too many references to Lewis Carroll, Nicole Kidman plays a perfect Alice in her tailored blue dress and with a Birth-like limited facial gesture performance that emphasizes her character’s cognitive condition of bewilderment. The pair of thesps remind of the Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter type exchanges – a volley of questions answered by more questions turns much of their exchanged dialogue in an oddly sounding mind over matter like chatter. Preparing for his upcoming role in Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr. plays the masked man with a certain bravado one that is topped only by the composition of several revelatory sequences. It may be a highest point of Downey’s career so far.

Stylistically and visually strong with a fine shot selection and choice of mostly interior colors – there are several elements here to marvel at. A reoccuring shot of Arbus’ hand letting go of her camera strap explains why she became so intimate with her subjects and befriend them, but not the reason why these subjects became a stronghold on her artistic vision or what propelled her to find beauty in the deformed. Though Shainberg’s approach boldly goes where no biopic has gone before, by limiting traditional biopic information Shainberg peaks the viewer’s curiosity but ultimately, it does nothing to make understand Arbus’ contribution to the world of American photography.

Rating 3 stars

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Eric Lavallée is the founder, CEO, editor-in-chief, film journalist, and critic at IONCINEMA.com, established in 2000. A regular at Sundance, Cannes, and Venice, Eric holds a BFA in film studies from the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema. In 2013, he served on the narrative competition jury at the SXSW Film Festival. He was an associate producer on Mark Jackson’s "This Teacher" (2018 LA Film Festival, 2018 BFI London). In 2022, he was a New Flesh Juror for Best First Feature at the Fantasia International Film Festival. Current top films for 2023 include The Zone of Interest (Glazer), Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell (Pham Thien An), Totem (Lila Avilés), La Chimera (Alice Rohrwacher), All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt (Raven Jackson).

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