Sex sells. We all know it and have become so extremely desensitized to the entire exercise, that directors must go farther and farther afield to find the current taboo. So when you’re talking about a film with an overt theme like fetishism, it would be safe to assume, the writer and director of Secretary (Erin Cressida Wilson and Steven Shainberg respectively), would be more likely successfully port this same theme to another.
Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Dealing with Diane Arbus (played by Nicole Kidman), the movie seeks to reinterpret how the famous photographer went from being a young housewife to the friend of all things “other”, cataloguing twins, dwarfs, nudists and everything in between. Born into a wealthy family, she met Alan Arbus (Ty Burrell) and they were married shortly after she became legal. Alan carved out a niche for himself in fashion photography and later for his father-in-law’s department store, Russeks, with Diane as his assistant.
Sadly, from this point on, namely more than five minutes into the movie, Diane reveals her central conceit – she is a fetishist, beginning with fur and ending with anything that a child of wealthy parents would logically consider untenable. This repressed sexuality becomes inextricably linked with Lionel (Robert Downey Jr, who looks like he stepped out of The Wiz), the Arbus’ newest neighbour who becomes for all intensive purposes, the walking, talking embodiment of them.
Both Kidman and Downey Jr are extremely miscast, Kidman more so, her ethereal beauty being too incorporeal. When she opens her dress on the balcony of the family apartment, it seems more like she herself is trying to release some of the kinetic ability we know she has. She stares wide eyed at every new human discovery so intently that it’s impossible to believe Diane could ever gain their trust in order to photograph them. Downey Jr is incapable of illustrating the nuance between sexuality and love, it appears to be Stockholm Syndrome more than an abiding love that Diane has for Lionel.
The theme is such a bad fit, that we learn nothing about Diane as a person, at both the beginning and end she doesn’t seem to have developed, merely moved from one masculine infatuation to another, without any strength of character. She is singular in both perspective and drive.
For a woman so tied to the earth that she felt the need to show us humanity in all its forms, this film keeps the titular character’s head so far in the clouds that in the end, nothing was gained from this neurotic Alice’s journey down the rabbit hole.