SIRENS (Australia, 1994) ** to *** depending on the viewer.
From movies about youth, Duigan moved to films with decidedly adult and erotic themes: "The Wide Sargasso Sea, " from Jean Rhys's tropically steamy prequel to "Jane Eyre," and "Sirens," a fiction based on a real person. ("Sargasso" played very briefly in just a a few theaters. A pity).
The model for "Sirens" was Norman Lindsay, an Australian painter, sculptor, novelist, illustrator and political cartoonist, who, until his death in 1969 at age 90, often taunted the public. Among his unsettling paintings was "The Crucified Venus." It depicts a sexy, unclothed woman on a cross, surrounded by libidinous men of the cloth.
That painting is at the root of the sex comedy "Sirens." Sent -- along with other paintings of Lindsay nudes -- to a travelling exhibition, it is the straw that breaks the camel's back. Fresh out of Oxford, English vicar Anthony Campion (Hugh Grant), is asked by his bishop to visit Lindsay and prevail upon him to pull out that flashy, fleshy and blasphemous entry.
Campion (named for Jane Campion who made "The Piano"?) and his quiet spouse Estella (Tara Fitzgerald), get to the Lindsay estate in the Blue Mountains. The artist is played by Sam Neill. He was surrounded by impressive flora and fauna in "The Piano" and in "Jurassic Park." Here, as Lindsay, he is surrounded by spectacular nature and spectacular female live-in models "au naturel." They remind me of the photo of Antonio Canova's sculpture "Three Graces" that the New York Times recently printed. The fourth, older and semi-Rubenesque model is his wife. The ladies not only pose for paintings and statues, but take every opportunity to disrobe, whether in the studio, in a pool or playing strip-poker. ( Ella Macpherson, the "Sports Illustrated" supermodel, put on 20 pounds for her first movie part.)
Anthony Campion is no straight-laced clergyman, and certainly not a lasciviously hypocritical prude like the preacher in Somerset Maugham's story "Rain" and the films made from it. Campion was, in fact, something of a "liberal" while at the University. Nonetheless, he does suffer from some visual embarrassments.
He tries to argue with Lindsay, who counters with his own Church-baiting beliefs about the beauty of the human body, going with the flow of nature, the excesses committed in the name of religion and so on. Nothing particularly new about this, but at least Lindsay keeps cool and does not pontificate. And, interestingly, this champ[ion of what used to be called "free love" is not a bit lubricious but a regular bourgeois husband and father.
Meanwhile, Estella Campion comes under the sway of the various naked beauties (all centerfold-type cuties with pounds added), of indirect sex games played by the surrounding rustics, and of a handsome, blind (and D.H. Lawrence-ish) handyman -- who also provides full frontal nudity.
I will say no more about the people, the situations and the developments, but it is preordained that they will affect the English couple, that whatever happens will be amusing and that abandon will replace sexual repression. It is also, in look and in essence, rather in the sensuous tradition of Auguste Renoir and of the sexual awakening in some films by his son Jean Renoir, who espoused doing-what-comes-naturally tolerance. And a scene where Estella suddenly sees herself as stark naked during a Sunday service is almost straight out of Jean Vigo's classic short "A Propos de Nice."
Except for the Lindsay family, estate, paintings, and the controversy around "The Crucified Venus" everything in the movie is a fantasy, a rather silly but pleasant one that, in many respects, is also a peachy but not preachy early feminist tract, even though this is not exactly an intellectual powerhouse of a movie.
John Duigan and his team show once more that they themselves have a strong painterly eye, not only for the human figure but for landscapes, places and surrealistic arrangements. The movie's period is between the two World Wars, but the precise time-frame is rather unclear and taunts us with hard-to-decipher clues and artifacts. But there are some felicities in the editing. Look, for instance, for the cut between a Rasputin-like figure on the Venus painting and the same figure as the live station-master when the Campions detrain.
Depending on the viewer's attitude and tolerance, "Sirens" could be seen as a joyfully anti-puritan work or as a titillating "Playboy"-like product, or both -- but with irony replacing the magazine's phony and pretentious "philosophy."
[Publ. 15 April 1994]