Really? This is what you choose to focus on when presented with an opportunity to make a film about one of the most intriguing personalities of the last half-century? Steven Shainberg’s highly fictionalized rendering of an episode from Diane Arbus’ pre-photographic legend days does what all frustratingly “based on real events” stories do — makes me want to reach for more documentarily authentic source material. But leaving aside biographical truth’s relativity, the film still represents a glaringly missed opportunity made all the more pronounced by early scenes that promise much more.
Played by Nicole Kidman as a prickly, neurotic shell surrounding a warm but troubled persona, the early scenes have a murder-mystery’s tension but quickly give way to an ever-slackening love story. A middle-class Manhattan wife and mom who works with her eternally patient husband in his commercial photography business, Kidman’s Arbus is a porcelain-skinned picture of brittle upper crust sexual repression. This expresses itself as the uncontrollable urge to bare her bra in public or flee panic-attack-stricken from social events.
Her nerves bundle at the sight of anything that might expose her secret interior life and Arbus’ first-act struggles to keep herself from unraveling are promising. Then there’s the key. The brass key she finds in the drain is in fact “a key” and unlocks a room filled with wondrous clichés — whose effect is compounded by a bouncy soundtrack of tinkling piano and gaudy bass strings, which dutifully wraps every scene in a shiny bow. Diane’s oddball relationship with the freakishly hirsute man who lives as a semi-recluse upstairs is meant to represent her self-discovery as a portrayer of the grotesque but is handled as a doomed love affair of such staggering conventionality it could be a story about anyone.
Opens November 10