Sunday, August 21, 2011

Beauty and the Bizarre

By Lisabet Sarai

Our topic this week, courtesy of Charlotte, is "Sexy Movies". I had a number of candidate films that I considered discussing: Bound, the breath-taking lesbian thriller starring Jennifer Tilley and Gina Gershon; Earth Girls are Easy, which I know is on Charlotte's list, too (what could be sexier than inspiring love in a sweet, geeky alien?); almost anything directed by Zalman King but especially 9 1/2 Weeks (predictable, right?). But I think that perhaps the most erotic film I've ever seen was Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, directed by Steven Shainberg and featuring Nicole Kidman and Robert Downey Jr.

I didn't realize, when I went to see this film, that the director was also responsible for sweetly perverse Secretary, another erotic favorite of mine. In retrospect this makes perfect sense. Both films concern themselves with the twisted side of humanity, or perhaps, the humanity of kink.

"Fur" chronicles the imaginary but convincing awakening of celebrated photographer Diane Arbus to her obsessive fascination with the grotesque. Frustrated and oppressed by her life as a vanilla 1950's housewife, Diane yearns for something more. She goes through the motions of daily life, assisting her husband in his photography business, distractedly caring for her daughters, and enduring the sarcasm of her wealthy mother. She lies awake next to her adoring but uncomprehending husband, trying to understand her own dissatisfaction. Her sharp eyes pick up all the bizarre and disturbing details in her surroundings that others miss, but she doesn't know what to do with her observations.

When she catches a glimpse of her new neighbor Lionel (Robert Downey Jr.), completely masked, she somehow recognizes him as the key to escaping her suffocating life. He recognizes her as well, recognizes the brilliant and disturbed creature hiding behind her facade of conformity. He sends her the key to his apartment through the sewer pipes, an appropriate metaphor. When she finally dares to climb the winding stairway to his attic lair, he invites her into his world, a twilight wonderland peopled by societal outcasts and circus freaks.

Lionel himself is a "beast-man", suffering from a genetic disorder that causes his whole body to be covered with hair. With his gentle voice and rude questions, he forces Diane to admit to her strange interests and desires. Hesitant at first, then exuberant, she surrenders to her true self, the beautiful, poised woman surrounded by dwarves and Siamese twins who is nevertheless, in Lionel's words, a "real freak". For Diane, this is badge of honor.

Although they hardly touch through most of the film, Diane's relationship with Lionel is intensely erotic. The excitement stems from their mutual fascination with the strange and terrible, their recognition of each other as complementary deviants. It is essentially the same excitement that I felt when I finally found my Master and he made me admit that I craved submission. Finally, Diane has found someone who understands her and who does not judge her, indeed who celebrates her perversity.

The tension between the two protagonists is maintained throughout the film, gradually turning to desperate longing. We expect an explosion at any time, a conflagration that will finally burn away the falseness of Diane's old life. Nevertheless, their inevitable coupling near the end of the film seems anti-climatic. The real climax is the terribly intimate and prolonged scene in which Diane shaves Lionel's entire body. Slowly we see the man emerge from within the beast. When he stands naked before her, bloodied by slips of the razor, I almost expected Diane to reject him as too normal. However, kinkiness is more than skin (or fur) deep.

Both Kidman and Downey provide quiet, nuanced performances that are completely believable. The imagery in the film mirrors Diane's skewed perspectives, showing us that the rich patrons of the photo studio and the precisely-groomed fashion models are every bit as grotesque as Lionel's freak show friends. The allusions to Lewis Carroll's irrational dream-worlds are obvious but apt.

I found this a disturbing and arousing film. For days after I saw it, I couldn't get it out of my mind. It found its way into my dreams. Weeks later, I was still feeling the echoes of excitement, still recalling erotic images, noticing artful details and metaphoric parallels.

I think that my reaction to this movie was a bit unusual. It has a relatively low rating on IMDB. I sent a copy to my Master, and even he didn't really "get" why the film had such an impact on me. But then, he's not the submissive one in our relationship.

If you haven't seen "Fur" - well, let this serve as a recommendation. If you have, I'd love to know what you think. Does anyone else find it as arousing as I did? Or am I just a freak?


  1. This movie sounds really awesome. I'll have to check it out.

  2. You made me want to see it. Secretary made my list too, such as it is.

  3. Hi Lisabet!

    I've never heard of this movie "Fur", though of course I know who Diane Arbus is. I've seen her pictures of bug eyed little girls and so on and was repulsed and amazed. They had the quality of a carny show seen by Salvador Dali. I'll have to search this on Netflix.

    I recently saw the movie "nine" which referred me back to the move "8 1/2" by Fellini. A lot of that movie went over my head, but one scene I really identified with was the lion tamer scene where Guido imagines all his women in one room adoring and solicitng him and then everything turns ugly and his has to get out his lion tamers whip. It made me laugh because I thought "That could have been me." It sort of speaks to all men.

    But isn;t it funny the stuff that pushes our buttons? These things are very individual and hard to predict. if we could predict exactly would sexually arouse readers or terrify them - we could make a million bucks and get our books in the movies.


  4. Catherine,

    You will love this movie, I think. It's kind of a validation of weirdness.

  5. Hi, Kathleen,

    "Fur" is a good deal odder than "Secretary", and more self-conscious - more "literary" if one can apply that label to film. However, from what I know of your tastes, I think you'd appreciate it - though you might not find it as erotic as I did.

  6. Hi, Garce,

    Now I've never heard of this movie "nine" - but it sounds intriguing.

    As for predicting what turns people on and then getting rich: I think it's highly individual. Even if you could do it, you might die a pauper.

    "Twilight" may be an exception LOL.

  7. I remember when Fur came out and you've rekindled my interest in seeing it. Thanks, Lisabet!

  8. I wonder why I hadn't heard of Fur. I've certainly heard of Diane Arbus through my daughter & son-in-law, both photographers (when they were speaking to me). They have some art books containing her work, with some written analysis. I will look for the movie.


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