A biopic of the life and times of American photographer Diane Arbus, who began in the fashion industry and ended up building her portfolio with photos of 'freaks and misfits'.
With its subtitle, “An Imaginary Portrait Of Diane Arbus”, this tribute to the celebrated and controversial photographer Diane Arbus confesses that it is not a conventional biography, but a fantasy expressing her inner experience. Well, alright then! Most biopics of artists make it all up anyway, but it’s good of them to say so.
Still, art lovers’ hackles may rise as it offers a simplistic, if bizarro, vision of Arbus’ artistic awakening. Diane here is devoted wife, mother and assistant to her fashion-photographer husband Allan (Ty Burrell). Her vulnerability is explained by meeting her wealthy, overbearing parents. She’s stifled. We know this because she sneaks outside to unbutton her prim dress and breathe. All she needed, apparently, was to meet a man — admittedly an unusual one — to teach her that oddity is the real beauty. We know this before she ever snaps her camera because all his chums are lookalikes of Arbus’ ’60s photographic subjects: dwarves, a woman without arms, transvestites, twins.
Give it up for Nicole Kidman. She seems to have an affinity with frustrated artists who committed suicide. It’s another adventurous choice of hers to work with the director (Steven Shainberg) and screenwriter (Erin Cressida Wilson) of the bold Secretary. And she’s well matched in the acting stakes by Robert Downey Jr., whose Lionel, circus freak turned reclusive wigmaker, turns his top-floor flat into what looks like the tower in an enchanted castle. Unmasked, every inch of him is covered with luxuriant hair; he’s a dead ringer for the Beast in Cocteau’s La Belle Et La Bête. There are also obvious allusions to Alice In Wonderland and a humorous delight in some far-fetched elements, although other notions teeter towards silliness (check out jealous husband Allan’s sprouting beard).
Downey Jr. is not just his usual great value; he is spellbinding. Those dark eyes penetrate through his pelt, exerting a supernatural charm that makes a memorably erotic love scene believable and affecting. Kidman, exposed without the assistance of any physical peculiarities, meets the singular challenge of conveying an artist’s inner journey with a quiet, subtle, passionate intelligence. More likeable, some might feel, than the real Arbus or her provocative images.
Far-out touches and liberal application of metaphor are compensated for by intensity and two mesmerising performances.