A review of ‘Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus’
Directed by Steven Shainberg, 2006
By Rachel Kendall
When I heard a film was being made about Diane Arbus I thought Yes! At last. Finally she’s about to be flung into a new medium for a whole new audience. When I heard it wasn’t so much a biographical film as an interpretive account of how her life might have been, with the introduction of the fictitious hairy-faced Lionel, I thought No! What have you done? I wanted rich, historical, biographical meat, not a wishy washy fairy tale.
But recently I put aside my reservations and decided to watch the film, with or without the need to shout obscenities at the screen, and was most pleasantly surprised. If I hadn’t already been a fan of Arbus before watching it, I certainly would have been after. She is a woman whose reputation for disrobing her subjects, both emotionally and physically, precedes her. As does, perhaps, her suicide. As in the case of any artist who takes their own life, her work could take on a whole new dimension with hindsight. Drawn to areas otherwise ‘off-limits’ to many photographers – hospitals, freak shows, morgues, sex shows, homes for people with learning disabilities, circuses, nudist camps, pro-war rallies etc – she caught people at home in their off-beat surroundings and made them appear more comfortable than the average person on the street.
The unknown becoming known, the faces unmasked, the sensitive core revealed.
‘Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus’ is a tribute and has license therefore to wax decadently on scenes that shy a little away from reality. In the film, as perhaps in life, she is desperately unhappy working as her photographer husband’s assistant. She feels herself out-growing the sterile world of fashion photography, the rationality and adherence to the rules of play she has been surrounded by for so long. She is waiting for someone to rescue her; completely open as she is to any new experience that will lift her out of this world and place her inside something new. And it comes in the form of a new neighbour, a man covered from head to foot in hair. Lionel (played fantastically by Robert Downey Jr.) represents the mystery and thrill of the unfamiliar.
There is a Lynchian feel to this film. A dreamy, velvety, damp world of jazz and dreams. As Diane tries to adapt, there is a sense of Alice in Wonderland, the ‘eat me, drink me’ of a person growing bigger than their surroundings, and the underlying sexual vibe of wanting to taste the forbidden fruit.
The use of the Lionel character actually works extremely well in neat juxtaposition to Arbus’ rational, ‘normal’ family world. Her parents as furriers, her husband as photographer of the cardboard cut-out women modelling the still-warm pelts while the masked Lionel leads Diane down the rabbit hole and on an exciting journey into the unknown. At the same time, Shainberg takes us on a journey through a fetishized pleasure of the senses – the slurping of wine, the chewing of good food, the drawing on a cigarette, the feel of soft furs and the sight of beautiful curves, sounds distended and engorging, the rich and a-moral wearing their masks – a definite nudge towards Arbus’ own desire to reveal the truth behind the façade of every one of her subjects.
Another device Shainberg uses to propel the real Arbus through the creative eye of the lens is simple voyeurism. Peepholes to watch through, vents to hear through, a door ajar, a stranger’s intimacy, all these are used to full advantage as Arbus tries to get to know Lionel, his circus-world, his friends, his own peeking at his neighbours though binoculars. And then there is the actual image-making. The subject as seen through a lens. The subject in two dimensions. Diane sees her neighbour as her first photographic project and aims to take his portrait. It will be the beginning of her life as a photographer in her own right. But it is only towards the end of the film, when she has finally managed to come to terms with her creative self, that she will take his picture. Before this she is photographing the staircase, the door, the hall, as though building up slowly to the naked, emotional man behind the poster portrait.
I loved this film. What more can I say? I think it’s a cinematic work of art, a brilliant story, and a beautiful tribute to an exceptionally talented and empathetic woman.