Turning her back on her wealthy, established family, Diane Arbus falls in love with Lionel Sweeney, an enigmatic mentor who introduces Arbus to the marginalized people who help her become one of the most revered photographers of the twentieth century.
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In 1958, in New York City, the upper class Diane Arbus is a frustrated and lonely woman with a conventional marriage with two daughters. Her husband is a photographer sponsored by the wealthy parents of Diane, and she works as his assistant. When Lionel Sweeney, a mysterious man with hypertrichosis (a.k.a. werewolf syndrome, a disease that causes excessive body hair), comes to live in the apartment in the upper floor, Diane feels a great attraction for him and is introduced to the world of freaks and marginalized people, falling in love with Lionel.Written by
Claudio Carvalho, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Any instance in which a filmmaker attempts to blend ideas of fact with fiction - especially when that particular fact is fairly well known and tied to an iconic historical figure - they're going to have problems in maintaining a connection with certain factions of their audience. Just look at some previous examples of this same stylistic device in other films; such as Dreamchild (1985) for instance, in which an elderly Alice Liddell reflects on her time spent with Lewis Carroll and his obsessive compulsion to nail her character to the very pages of his most celebrated work. Even more polarising was David Cronenberg's adaptation of the cult novel Naked Lunch (1991), in which elements of the author's life and works were blended together to create a torturous, darkly-comic and highly homo-erotic trek through the damaged psychological territory of a Burroughs-like bug exterminator. A similar approach was also used by director Steven Sodebergh and screenwriter Lem Dobbs with their coolly expressionistic merging of the fantastical and horrific writings of Kafka (1991), with the more mundane, everyday-like tedium of his real life and work.
Fur (2006), which makes its intentions clear with the subtitle "an imaginary portrait of Diane Arbus", takes on a similar approach to the films aforementioned; blending elements of personal fact and actual biographical detail with a story that is pure, fairy tale fabrication. Having watched the film just a few days ago, I browsed the Internet for previous reviews to get a sense of how other audiences had approached it. In doing so, I was quite shocked and surprised to see just how violently some viewers had reacted to the film; citing everything from the liberal approach of the film's script, the central performance from Nicole Kidman, and the fundamental message that seems implied by the film's very tender sense of emotional drama as reasons why this film was worthless or simply not good. This surprised me for two reasons, firstly; that these intelligent and well-versed viewers were unable to separate the elements of fact surrounding the real life Diane Arbus and her extraordinary body of work from the quite clearly fabricated depiction of grotesque beauty that the filmmakers create through the imagined relationship between our caricature of Diane and a character named Lionel; a mysterious former carnival performer. Secondly, it surprised me that these viewers felt that Arbus's life would be better served by a routine, by the books Hollywood biopic in which all the facts and back stories are simplified, and we end up with a very simple film about the triumph of the little guy against all odds.
Do people really want bland, cookie-cutter, connect the dots cinema; a struggle over adversary and all the usual nonsense that comes with those A-Z, biographical features, such as Walk the Line (2005) and Ray (2004)? Sadly, it would appear so. What happened to audiences craving imaginative, free-thinking cinema? Something that attempts to deconstruct a greater truth in an intelligent, imaginative and emotionally captivating way that is genuinely suited to the visual, metaphorical capabilities that cinema presents. For me, everything you would need to know about Arbus is here and everything you would need to know about her art is divulged in a number of interesting, highly imaginative visual quirks. You just have to scratch beneath the surface. Read between the lines and you'll see with this film the very psychological impulse and motivation to create something beautiful from the seemingly mundane; to capture that all too fleeting moment and preserve it on film forever. Fur, for me, took us inside the psychological world of Arbus, with none of the black and white moralising or textbook type tedium that often plagues this particular genre; but instead, showing us some of the potential ideas and imagined situations that came to instill her work with such a grotesque sense of beauty.
It has a long been said; "every picture tells a story". That's what this film is about. Anyone can read a book about the real life Arbus; but how on earth is that enriching the cinematic medium? I personally don't look to cinema to find something that is readily available to me at my local library. This film takes us inside Arbus' world and gives us a beautifully told and imaginative back-story that blends elements of real-life fact with references to Gothic literature, fairy stories, history and the subjective power of the art itself. The creative spirit of this film is exactly in tune with Arbus's creative vision. To give us something like the Rocky (1976) of photographer-themed biographical pictures would, to my mind at least, have been a much greater insult to the unique and continually captivating universe that this particular artist created through her work. You may disagree with the approach, or fail to see the appeal of the story, but for me, Fur is the kind of film that I feel I could go back to again and again and still find a number of things worth raving about.
Like one of Arbus's iconic pictures, Fur presents us with something seemingly drab, seemingly bizarre, and allows us to take the time to see the inherent beauty behind it. Like the work of Diane Arbus itself, you can choose to see it as something unfeeling or exploitative, or alternatively, you can see it as a gateway into understanding the enormous amount of empathy that Arbus had for her bizarre and often extraordinary subjects. The direction manages to create a mood and an ambiance that is halfway between the aforementioned William S. Burroughs and the antiseptic 50's Americana of The Bell Jar, with the otherworldly danger and mystique of a film like Pan's Labyrinth (2006). Alongside these stylistic elements we also have continual references to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and the notion of Beauty and the Beast, and all tied together by the fine performances from Kidman as the shackled, stifled Arbus and Robert Downey Jr. as the mysterious and sympathetic Lionel.
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