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Montages of scribbling pens, tumbling pages, and wet canvases just don’t do it—the rush of artistic creation usually looks stultifyingly mechanical in biopics about writers, painters, composers, and the like. So director Steven Shainberg, who certainly altered the office-comedy schema with his B&D-themed Secretary, decided to eliminate entirely the mechanics of making art from his study of a longtime obsession, New York photographer Diane Arbus. The results are mixed but certifiably different, which is more than can be said for Agnieszka Holland’s Copying Beethoven. The latter rises to the challenge of getting the composer’s inspiration on screen, but only during one sequence of an otherwise formulaic movie.
As if you couldn’t guess, Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus is not a true story. In fact, it both opens and closes with cautionary notes that underscore the movie’s subtitle. Scripted by Secretary’s Erin Cressida Wilson, the film begins with Arbus (Nicole Kidman) on an early shoot at a nudist camp, then hops back to just before she became a working photographer. The setup is historically accurate: In 1958, Arbus is living in Manhattan, the mother of two young daughters. She works as an assistant to husband Allan (Ty Burrell), a commercial photographer who shoots fashion spreads for the department store owned by Diane’s uptight, controlling parents (Harris Yulin and Jane Alexander). The store is known for its furs, but that’s just a departure point for a fable that owes more to Alice in Wonderland and Jean Cocteau’s film of Beauty and the Beast than its ostensible source, Patricia Bosworth’s Diane Arbus: A Biography.
Diane is dissatisfied with her life but has no inspiration to change it. That changes abruptly when retired sideshow attraction Lionel (Robert Downey Jr.), moves in upstairs, at first wearing a mask. He’s covered with hair, and soon a clump of his pelt has blocked the Arbus’ drain. When Diane cleans out the clog, she finds a key inside. This implied invitation leads into Lionel’s world, which is populated by the sort of people the real Arbus became (in)famous for photographing: Among his pals are a dwarf, an armless woman, and a dominatrix. Diane’s interest in the fur-faced Lionel is immediately and unabashedly erotic, and he purringly cultivates her interest. The first time they talk, he gets her partially disrobed and interrogates her about her sex life, which at that point is not nearly so interesting as it’s going to get.
A suave and grown-up, if bizarre, version of the many youthful seducers Downey has played in his career, Lionel has a quietly authoritative manner and lots of interesting props. His penthouse apartment, reached impossibly via a spiral staircase or a trap door, is crammed with arcane photos and fetish objects, the perfect place for a mad hatter’s tea party. (At their initial meeting, Diane sips tea while Lionel pets a white rabbit.) Yet, as the embodiment of the “freak” muse that will liberate Diane, Lionel can’t linger. Finally, she shaves his entire body, and he then departs into a symbolic sea. Diane Arbus the artist—who has just taken her first real photograph—is born.
Beautifully photographed (by Bill Pope) and impeccably staged, Fur tantalizes and fascinates—for a while. Gradually, however, its limitations come into focus. Shainberg and Wilson don’t really expand on the motifs that are introduced in the first half hour, and the film ultimately doesn’t have anything to say about the process of creating either art or an artistic career. Kidman is wide-eyed, whispery, and weirdly passive, an altered state she’s entered before in such films as Birth and Dogville. The idea seems to be that, in order to photograph freaks, you must first become one. Yet while the actual Arbus was clearly a distressed soul—she committed suicide in 1971—it’s not at all clear that she ever experienced such an epiphany. Indeed, it could be argued that her photographs take their power from a fascination that has nothing to do with empathy.
Just because Arbus’ photographs inspired Fur doesn’t mean the movie had to be the story, however fanciful, of her life. Untethered as it is to reality, the film still stumbles over issues of the photographer’s identity. Ultimately, Shainberg reaches the same point as many a “based on a true story” filmmaker and doesn’t seem to realize it: His real-life subject becomes a distraction from the themes he wants to develop. Having used Arbus’ work as a springboard, Fur should have taken a definitive leap into pure fiction and left the biopic to more literal-minded storytellers.
Agnieszka Holland began her career as a screenwriter, but since becoming a director she’s frequently worked from other people’s scripts. Usually it’s apparent what attracted her to the project, but sometimes it is decidedly not. In the case of Copying Beethoven, which was written by Nixon and Ali authors Christopher Wilkinson and Stephen J. Rivele, Holland’s likely motivation eventually becomes clear: She wanted to stage the film’s 10-minute abridgement of the 1824 Vienna premiere of Beethoven’s Ninth, conducted by the deaf composer (Ed Harris) while he’s prompted by his pretty and feisty new score copyist, Anna Holtz (Diane Kruger). It’s a dazzling sequence that justifies the price of admission for Beethoven fans—or at least the ones who aren’t sticklers for historical accuracy. Too bad about the rest of the movie.
Trying to make a biopic that embodies the delicacy and grandeur of Beethoven’s music is not a fresh idea; director Bernard Rose attempted it with 1994’s Immortal Beloved. But where that film was a sort of mystery, turning on the identity of the never-identified “immortal beloved” to whom the composer left his estate, Copying Beethoven has very little story at all. It’s essentially Amadeus without the latter’s bitter rivalry. Beethoven, like that film’s Mozart, is revealed as a vulgar, dislikable man whose music has a sublimity that’s undiscernible in his character. And then he dies.
Technically, Beethoven expires at the beginning of the movie, as faithful Anna rushes to his deathbed. Then the story flashes back three years, to the moment when she’s recruited by a music publisher driven to distraction by the composer’s demands. Supposedly, Anna is the most promising music student in Vienna, and she soon proves herself by “correcting” a passage in his symphony—and thus improving it. Both the publisher and the composer are shocked that Anna is a woman, as their real-life counterparts also would have been. She’s actually a composite character constructed from the two male copyists Beethoven employed near the end of his life.
Since romance never develops between Beethoven and Anna, it was hardly necessary to make the copyist female. Reportedly, potential backers thought it made the film more marketable, but there’s another reason as well. Wilkinson and Rivele modeled their central characters’ relationship on those sweet-tart old Hollywood romances that invariably begin with mutual disdain. Harris, who played a faith-challenged priest in Holland’s 1999 film The Third Miracle, is the crusty middle-aged man set in his ways and challenged by a young woman who’s both attractive and competent. His is the Spencer Tracy role, telegraphed by such affectations as the condescending way he always refers to Anna by her full name. (The role is less than ideal for Harris, who’s more persuasive in the tragic moments than the comic ones.) Kruger, who has somewhat overcome the stigma of playing an utterly blank Helen in Wolfgang Petersen’s drably epic Troy, is Katharine Hepburn, of course: She knows better, and doesn’t need the old coot anyway, yet gradually she’s won over by the better side of his nature.
Patterning the movie on mid-century romantic comedies is preferable to emulating those drowsy old Hollywood dramas about great artists and composers. And Holland and cinematographer Ashley Rowe do give the film a contemporary look, relying heavily on handheld camera, natural light, and deep shadows. The film’s centerpiece—which features Hungary’s Kecskemet Symphony Orchestra on stage but Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra on the soundtrack—is a delirious montage of quick cuts and fast pans that’s more recent European art film (the Warsaw-born director’s home turf) than old-school biopic. After that flight of imagination, however, Copying Beethoven returns to its musty battle-of-the-sexes scenario, which now seems even more feeble than before. The film’s conclusion, a brief lyrical moment that resembles the controversial ending of the Holland-scripted Holocaust drama Korczak, gently recalls the rapture of the film’s concert-hall sequence. All the rest, though, is a trudge through narrative readymades that would seem tired even if they weren’t regularly upstaged by Beethoven’s music.CP