It takes guts to make a film “inspired by the life of Diane Arbus” – an homage Toronto writer-director Gail Harvey baldly declares in the opening credits to her fourth theatrical feature, Looking is the Original Sin. Right off the bat the viewer knows he or she is in for a rough ride, not least because Arbus’s life was decidedly short and unhappy, ended by suicide at 48 in New York in 1971.
It’s also a risky gambit aesthetically. Arbus was a genius of the camera. Her famous black-and-white photographs of dwarves, twins, giants and transvestites, the distressed, asylum inmates – “freaks” she called them – still deliver a kick a half-century after she took Rolleiflex and Pentax for some walks on the wild side. Nevertheless, that was then. To transpose that ethos to the second decade of the 21st century, as Harvey attempts here, strikes me as misguided enterprise. Not only does it invite invidious comparison, it gels the movie in an aspic of déjà vu while undercutting the pathos it aspires to provoke.
At heart Looking is the Original Sin is a mother-daughter story. Maria del Mar (Blue Murder, Street Legal) plays the mom, Helene, a celebrated photographer who, in the throes of some vaguely sketched artistic and existential crises, decides to abandon the family home in contemporary Toronto – and 19-year-old daughter, Anna (Katie Boland, Harvey’s real-life daughter and one of Looking’s three producers) – to pursue her muse and escape (embrace?) her depression. While she professes undying love for her daughter, she says, “I have to love life, too, right? … There are places I have to go and I can’t take you with me.”
Hurt by the abandonment, Anna is nonetheless determined not to lose her mother and begins to rummage through Helene’s past and prints, even to the point of taking up the camera herself. As events unfold, she befriends Brent (Kent Staines), a drag queen who’s been the subject of some of Helene’s photographs and a major booster of her work.
Thing is, the work the viewer sees in Looking is the Original Sin, isn’t terribly prepossessing. Photographs of drag queens, the marginalized and the urban demi-monde may have seemed daring, transgressive even in Diane Arbus’s heyday, roughly 1961 to 1971. But now? After the “perversities” documented by the likes of Robert Mapplethorpe, Nan Goldin and Joel-Peter Witkin, Helene’s oeuvre seems tame indeed and hardly the stuff of the reputation we’re supposed to believe she has.
Looking is the Original Sin isn’t, of course, the first film to riff on Arbus. Seven years ago Steven Shainberg directed what he called “an imaginary portrait” of the doomed photographer, titling it Fur and casting Nicole Kidman in the lead. Response to the movie was mixed but at least Shainberg set his story in Arbus’s milieu and time so that the restrictions and anxieties she felt had a palpable presence, her breakthroughs and breakdowns a source. Looking is the Original Sin, by contrast, relies too much on a soundtrack rife with emo songs, long, pseudo-meaningful pauses and an accumulation of actorly tics from del Mar to depict inner psychological states. The film’s one saving grace is Boland who invests her part with ache and tenderness. At 25, Boland’s an increasingly in-demand talent, the proof plainly evident here.
Perhaps if Looking is the Original Sin hadn’t been so beholden to the mystique of Diane Arbus, it might have found a fresher, more modern way to explore the perennial tensions between art and life, domesticity and bohemianism, the nurturative impulse and self-expression. Looking at it, you won’t feel so much sinned against as disappointed.