Nothing in the world of cinema is more godforsaken than the biopic, a genre that has probably produced few masterpieces than any other - I could probably name more great slasher films than great biopics. But of course it's not the case that they can't be good, just that they usually aren't.

The new collaboration from director Steven Shainberg and writer Erin Cressida Wilson, their first since Secretary, is just such a good biopic, and this is for a very simple reason that is revealed in the film's full title: Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus. That is, this is a true story that has been almost completely fabricated.

The side effect (some would call it "unfortunate") is that Fur does not end up telling us anything about the real Arbus, or her art, or her place in the world. (Full disclosure: as recently as one month ago, I didn't know who Arbus was, and outside of a couple of hours spent Googling images, I have absolutely no knowledge of her work). By which account, it's not really a biopic at all, but some sort of hybridized real-world fantasy, a world of monsters and mythic symbolism in 1950s' New York.

There has been a shockingly hostile critical reception to the film, and almost all of seems to revolve around the same small number of complaints: the film is insufficiently accurate, the character psychology makes no sense, the narrative metaphors are too obvious and clumsy. These all miss the mark completely, being that they are all marks against the film's script, and with all requisite apologies to Ms. Wilson, this is not a film for which the neatness of its writing has a whole lot to do with its final appearance. Fur is a film about tone and mood and mise en scène, that useful phrase film theorists use when they're not quite certain what they're thinking about. In this case, Shainberg, cinematographer Bill Pope (who worked with Sam Raimi on the not-dissimilar Darkman) and the fantastically-named production designer Amy Danger have created a singularly Gothic version of the 1950s. Not in the Tim Burton sense of weird lines and colors, but in the David Lynch sense of dirtiness, shadows, and a general sense that things are only perfectly normal when you're looking straight at them.

The plot is even somewhat Lynchian, in its mashing of banality with the grotesque: Diane Arbus (Nicole Kidman) is the daughter of wealth, the wife of a middlebrow photographer, and quite dissatisfied with her life. One day she meets Lionel, (Robert Downey, Jr.) a man covered in hair head to foot in hair, who introduces her to a world of physical and sexual freaks. Because she is much more comfortable with them than with her family, she starts taking photographs of abnormal people. That is an A->B->F progression, and part of the reason why, admittedly, the script is not the reason to see the film. Another good reason is the plodding literalness of its metaphors: the fur of the title refers to both the authentic freak Lionel and the shallow, fake people who wear Diane's father's fur coats; Diane's journey is compared explicitly with Alice in Wonderland. And the film does itself no favors whatsoever with a bracingly twee pair of title cards explaining how it's a heavily fictionalized account of events, using the most irritatingly elevated language imaginable.

And again, all that means is: ignore the script. The imagery is so hallucinatory, and the acting (Kidman's primarily, although everyone shows it to some degree) is so curiously detached and flat (in a good way) that the whole thing begins to feel extraordinarily impressionistic and dreamlike. It's form following content, through and through: as Diane slips farther and farther into her strange fantasy world, the film become more and more hazy and disjointed. What's interesting is not the terribly banal observation that Alice in Wonderland applies to Diane, it's that Fur is a sort of sensory rabbit hole for the audience. Is it a grand story? Not at all. But it is a visionary one,* and it bears repeating that for all we think of it as a storytelling medium, the only requirement inherent to Cinema is that it be a visual marvel. Fur is marvelous, and then some.