Rome Film Festival: Kidman & Arbus

Rome's new film festival gets under way with a controversial 'biography' of the photographer
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Rome stages its first film festival this week, in a direct challenge to the annual Venice jamboree, and its choice of opening presentation shows every readiness to go for the sensational, the unexpected, the daring.

The film chosen was until recently known simply as Fur. It has picked up a subtitle, "An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus", a placatory gesture that will serve no purpose. A lot of people - starting with the family of the late controversial photographer - will be outraged by the complete abandonment of biographical fact.

Biography, however, is a strange art (I write as the author of a recent book on Nicole Kidman, who plays the imaginary Diane Arbus). Sometimes the front door is the last place to enter; buildings have their own private nooks and crannies.

Fur opens in New York City in 1958. Diane and Allan Arbus live together with their two children. Allan is a professional photographer, and one of his main jobs every year is to photograph the new collections of furs produced by the firm run by Diane's parents. We see that fashion show, and it's clear that Diane, its organiser, is a nervous wreck, caught between demanding parents and a rather cool husband.

As Kidman presents her, Diane is at first a classic portrait of a 1950s wife and mother who has no life of her own. A few people ask Diane in a kindly way what she photographs, and she cannot admit to anything. You feel she is headed for a nervous breakdown.

One day there are violent noises from the apartment upstairs as a new tenant moves in. Diane is curious, and at night thinks she sees a masked man upstairs watching her. A kind of subtle attraction develops between them - it could be love, it could be the start of a horror story.

It bears no relation to anything that ever happened in the life of the real Diane Arbus, but it is the basis of a great film.

The man upstairs, named Lionel, is played by Robert Downey Jr. He is among the most enigmatic, charming, wise and amusing men we've met in a film for a long time. And hair grows all over his body: you might call it fur.

Like a little girl in a very grave fairy story, Arbus musters the courage to go upstairs to see Lionel. It's the start of a rare friendship. Bit by bit, he opens her up. It's not so much the sex or the shaving (you'll have to see for yourself) as the general education he provides.

You see, Lionel has friends - transsexuals, giants, dwarfs, freaks. What do you expect in a film that - imaginatively - is going to try to show you how Arbus became herself? Upstairs, she finds out what it is she needs to photograph. None of this ever happened, yet there it is on screen in Fur as large as life - and as mysterious and touching as it is beautiful.

Kidman doesn't look like Arbus, but the world she discovers does look like the Arbus work we know. The film will be argued over fiercely. You see, there are so many ways of turning the raw skin of life into the fur coat called biography.

For Kidman, this is another of her very brave films. For Downey, it is another sign of genius. And for Rome, it is a terrific start.