Dir: Steven Shainberg. US. 2006. 122mins.

A surprising and seductive curio from Secretary directorSteven Shainberg, Furis one of the season's most unusual films. On the one hand, its high-calibrecast led by Nicole Kidman and Robert Downey Jrscreams of prestige awards contender, while on the other its unconventionalpacing, largely fictional story about the iconic Arbusand decidedly bizarre characters mark it out as a cult item which willinfuriate as many as it enchants.

Furalready divided opinion when it had its world premiere screening at Telluridelast month, although European audiences will probably be more favourable thanthose in the US when it has its international premiere as the opening nightfilm of the inaugural Rome International Film Festival this week. Budgeted inthe $12m region, it is a pricey specialised item, and the producers will becounting on the two star names to ensure payback in theatres and ancillarymarkets around the world.

The film, as the title makesvery clear, is not a biopic of Arbus, the legendaryphotographer most famous for her portraits of life's outsiders like dwarves,transvestites and prostitutes. It is, as the opening title card explains, "afilm that invents characters and situations that reach beyond reality to expresswhat might have been Arbus' inner experience on herextraordinary path."

In other words, Shainberg and his Secretaryscreenwriter Wilson have invented a story which might explain how Arbus went from a housewife, mother and the daughter of awealthy New York family to become an artist, and how indeed she got to thepoint of leaving her husband.

The film, set in 1958,starts as a small fashion show takes place at the fancy New York apartmentowned by Allan Arbus, a fashion and advertisingphotographer, and his wife Diane, who is his assistant. The show is for thelatest furs from Russek's, the Fifth Avenue fur storerun by Diane's imperious parents - her father (Yulin)and mother (Alexander). While Allan oversees the models, Diane buckles underthe stress of her parents' scrutiny and rushes out to the balcony where sheinstinctively unleashes her cleavage in full view of the neighbouring building.

Her hunger for adventure andcuriosity for life outside her repressed existence are further awakened when sheobserves the arrival of her new upstairs neighbour Lionel (Downey Jr) whose face is concealed by a mask and scarf.

Over the following days,Diane becomes fascinated by Lionel and eventually dares to walk up to hisapartment, armed with the camera which her husband bought her years before andwhich she has never used. On the promise that she wants to photograph him, sheis invited in by Lionel, still masked, and the two embark on a friendship.

Lionel, it emerges, has anillness which means that he is covered in abundant hair from head to toe. Hisface is covered in hair, apart from his eyes, which penetrate deep into Diane'ssoul. Regardless of his condition, Diane is mesmerised and she abandons allscruples as he introduces her into a netherworld peopled by those living on thefringes of society as she knows it - conjoined twins, dwarves, drag queens,giants and so on.

Diane starts neglecting herfamily, staying out night after night as Lionel shows her the other side of NewYork. She tries to bring Allan into her new circle, but he resists, leaving thepath open for Diane to fall in love with Lionel.

The film's portrayal of Arbus' creative awakening is nothing more than fantasy, butit is an effective conceit which not only captures the direction of her futurephotography but also rather beautifully illustrates the soul of its charactersbeyond physical idiosyncrasies.

Shainberg deliberately paces the film like a dream, andmainstream audiences used to fast cutting and short scenes will be shuffling intheir seats. Fortunately the two lead actors are so persuasive that thedreamlike journey of Arbus in the film becomesequally persuasive. When Diane starts shaving Lionel's body hair and confessingher love for him, even as he himself is telling her of his impending death, thefilm has convincingly morphed from a "what if" whimsy to a genuinely affectinglove story.

Kidman, once againdemonstrating her impulse to take on unusual projects and characters,splendidly and subtly embodies the seachange inDiane, while Downey Jr, in one of the mostchallenging roles of his career, is captivating as Lionel. Even though hespends most of the film covered in hair, the actor hypnotizes Arbus and the screen with just his eyes.

Production companies
River Road Entertainment
Edward R Pressman Film Corp
Iron Films
Vox3 Films

US distribution

International sales
New Line International

Executive producers
Edward R Pressman
Alessandro Camon
Michael Roban

William Pohlad
Laura Bickford
Bonnie Timmermann
Andrew Fierberg

Erin Cressida Wilson
Inspired by the book Diane Arbus: A Biography by PatriciaBosworth

Bill Pope

Production designer
Amy Danger

Keiko Deguchi
Kristina Boden

Carter Burwell

Main cast
Nicole Kidman
Robert Downey Jr
Ty Burrell
Harris Yulin
Jane Alexander
Emmy Clarke
Genevieve McCarthy