On some level every biopic is an act of mythmaking, twisting and compressing a lifetime into a tidy package, but in Fur, director Steven Shainberg treats the truth as a simple framework on which to hang an elaborate fantasy. Photographer Diane Arbus (1923-1971) was one of the most influential and idiosyncratic artists of the last century, but here her creative blossoming is treated more like a field trip into a kinky underworld amusement park. Nicole Kidman stars as Diane (pronounced DEE-Ann), dressed up as an immaculate 1950s housewife and bathed in soft light to look like a porcelain Donna Reed. Alongside stuffy hubby Allan (Ty Burell) she has a booming fashion photography business, with major underwriting coming from her wealthy family's luxury fur coat business. It's clear she isn't happy shooting endless layouts of pearls and poodle skirts, but she doesn't have the slightest notion of how to escape her role until she gets a captivating peek at the masked man moving into the penthouse above in their spooky New York apartment building. Soon the pipes are getting clogged with thick clumps of hair, one of which includes a door key and an invitation upstairs, and into this stranger's weird world. His name is Lionel Sweeney (Robert Downey Jr.) and it turns out the masks are needed to conceal a rare condition, called hypertrichosis, that covers his body in a heavy werewolf-like coat of fur. Although he's covered from head to toe, Lionel is an artistic soul who insists on being emotionally naked. As he slowly seduces Diane, he opens her up in every meaning of the word.
That the biographical details of Arbus' life aren't exactly public knowledge doesn't excuse the liberties taken with the facts, and suggesting that her entire aesthetic was inspired by a chance encounter with a circus freak is like claiming that Pablo Picasso had a real-life girlfriend made out of cubes. As insulting as the whole enterprise is, it also works as a curious tribute, honoring the artist's spirit if not her reality. At no point does the movie address the depression that would ultimately consume her but the inner life is notoriously hard to capture on screen, so Shainberg opts instead for a simplified adult fairy tale about a dreamy girl in a haunted castle with a Beauty and the Beast fetish. The attempts at dreamland mystery often come off as sleepy rambling, but there's no denying that the picture is flat-out gorgeous, with rich visuals and terrific production design.
Downey is predictably good, laboring under layers of crepe hair that make him look like a wookie dressed in natty hipster drag. He finds the heart of the beast, delivering a sympathetic and seductive performance in a role that easily could have been silly. Kidman is too glamorous and fragile for the part, and Shainberg might have done better to reteam with his Secretary star Maggie Gyllenhal, an actress more comfortable with tapping her inner weirdo.
Showing at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111).
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.