Once he's assured us that Fur's pretentiousness is firmly in place, however, director Steven Shainberg (Secretary) gets down to the business of being entertaining. By liberating this from the nit-picky details that make up mundane life, Shainberg is free to examine the sexual, emotional and confusing issues that make up the inner life of an artist.
Arbus is played by Nicole Kidman, who is as potent an emotional broadcaster as cinema currently has. Kidman's intensity could have easily overwhelmed Fur's vaguer sections. But Kidman and Shainberg had the good sense to keep her performance on simmer.
Fur catches Arbus on the cusp of becoming an artist. As a housewife trapped in an upwardly mobile upper-middle class home in the '50s, she pants beneath her buttoned collars and flusters in the midst of cocktail parties. It's yet another example of the repressed woman/artist figure, and it's the film's least-interesting theme.
Much more compelling are the formulaic sequences with which Shainberg infuses his coming-out-of-the-shell story. Arbus encounters a fictional upstairs neighbor through a squeamish scene involving sewage pipes that was reminiscent of the best bug gross-outs in Indiana Jones. Arbus' later relationship with that neighbor could have hit too many The Young and the Restless notes if it weren't for Robert Downey Jr.'s performance beneath yards and yards of hair, which ends up making it quirky and slightly kinky.
What works best in Fur is entirely fictional, but the film still creates a sense of who this woman was. It also illustrates -- beautifully -- the weirdness of artistic creation. Unfortunately, after delving into Arbus' inner life, I wanted to know more about her, but the DVD failed to reward my curiosity with even a cursory documentary. Fiction is fine, but if a film piques my interest (and Shainberg and Kidman certainly know how to inspire interest), I expect the special features to follow through. Otherwise, it's just a movie.