For those who don’t know who Diane (pronounced Dee-an) Arbus was, here’s a quick rundown: She was an American photographer/writer noted for black-and-white photographs of deviants, circus freaks, transvestites and other marginal members of society. She tragically took her own life in 1971.
This film, however, directed by Steven Shainberg, doesn’t attempt to satisfy any curiosity about Diane Arbus’ (Nicole Kidman) short and brilliant life. It rather, leads the viewer “down the rabbit hole” to a fantasy world. Fur is artfully styled and directed, down to every last detail settling the tone for the 1958 backdrop. Costumes and sets are impeccable. One does beg the question: Where is this film going? I was hoping for more of a glimpse into Arbus’ life as a whole – but the in the film’s special features, the creators explain that the premise of the film was to create the “imaginary portrait” to give a theoretical source for Arbus’ first forays into portrait photography. Her muse is a former circus “freak” named Lionel (Robert Downey, Jr.), and is for much of the film, concealed by creepy cloth masks reminiscent of The Strangers or looking uncannily like the Beast from Beauty and the Beast. On her discovery of self, deep inside Lionel’s at once whimsical and eerie lair, she encounters a dominatrix, a handful of dwarves, a tall man and an armless woman. Such “oddities” are to be symbolic of Arbus’ later draw to the type of people traditionally left unexamined and outcast at the margins of society.
A fetishized attraction quickly glowers between the Diane and Lionel, drawing her up and away from the duties of family life – husband Allan (played by Ty Burrell) and two children. Having lived as a young and privilege housewife/assistant to her commercial photographer husband, Arbus feels the inevitable draw of her own untapped talent, which for essentially the entire film, is masquerading as misplaced lust. Adulterous love does not in itself make one an artist, but the end implies that Arbus has found her calling, and as she mourns the suicide of her beloved friend. The film ends on an unresolved note. At times bittersweet and oddly sexual, some might find it compelling to watch, but are left craving more insight into the life of a remarkable artist.
Check out RottenTomatoes for other takes on the film. It wasn’t popular with critics. That said, I think it was a well-intentioned, very watchable production which fell flat of achieving any lasting purpose.