Witty 'Sirens' captivates with a moral dilemma: Heaven or Elle?

March 25, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

The message of John Duigan's new film is obvious: Do not send to know for whom the sirens sing; they sing for thee.

The song they sing is the song of flesh and its possibilities, of sliding through sensations, of the profound and delightful lassitude that follows mingling it and all the happy work you have to do to get there. For "Sirens" refights the oldest of human battles, between Eros and order, between flesh and discipline, between the rock and the soft spot.

The place and time are Australia somewhere in the still-Victorian '30s. A notorious artist named Norman Lindsay (Sam Neill) is upsetting the gentry with his rather frank and somewhat blasphemous celebrations of the female form. The establishment, in the form of the archbishop of Sydney, says: We are not amused, particularly as a major exhibition is coming up and Lindsay, who is famous, insists on exhibiting his new work, "The Crucified Venus," which shows naked young women surrounded by clerics.

And so a pious young man and his rigid wife are sent out to this magician's lair to show him the error of his ways. It's one stroke of originality that the young man -- the Rev. Anthony Campion -- is far from a puritan. In fact, it's our old friend Hugh Grant, last seen on the Rotunda's other screen trying to marry Andie McDowell in "Four Weddings and a Funeral." This one might be called "Four Arguments and a Liberation." Grant, beaming smugness like the vapors pouring from a chunk of dry ice, makes a wondrous Oxfordian cleric. He fancies himself, in a rather amusing way, sophisticated. Ironic and even "liberal," he believes that he can banter with the artist and by the supremacy of his wit and the suppleness of his mind, shepherd the old goat back into the flock.

But neither he nor his wife have counted upon the sirens.

There are three of them, who hang about the artist's hilltop estate as models-in-waiting and girls Friday, and though Duigan goes to some lengths to give each a personality, there is really only one, and her name is Elle MacPherson.

Supermodel and Sports Illustrated cover-icon MacPherson, with 20 extra pounds of Rubenesque flesh added and spectacularly placed for the film, is like the poem in MacLeish's "Ars Poetica" in that she does not mean, but be. That is, she is in some sense irreducible, an image, if you will, of all the sweetnesses the flesh beckons us toward. I must say, it sort of weights the argument to one side.

But the surprise is that she turns out to be quite a natural actress, and Duigan's clever script neatly de-idealizes her persona. In fact, he portrays her as a tough, rural, working-class young woman, cynical already about her beauty in small, narrow ways, well aware of the power it confers upon her, and desperate to get out of town. That she can be this, and also the spirit of Eros is one of the great goofs in the movie.

The film is basically about a seduction, though not the one you'd suppose. Grant's smug Anglican clergyman isn't the one to take the fall. Far more amusingly, it's his bitter, rigid little wife, played with an upper lip so stiff it looks fossilized by Tara Fitzgerald, who feels the earth move, with the sirens cleverly manipulating her toward a night of bliss she never knew could exist. She becomes the liberated one.

There are disappointments: Neill is a surprisingly passive and intellectual satyr, when I was expecting a randy he-goat who would champion the cause of sexual liberation. He never really makes that case, being far more involved in his art.

But the delights are far more numerous, particularly the slow and steady melting of the English couple. And there are always small witticisms: Duigan, who did the wonderful "Flirting" and the not so wonderful "Wide Sargasso Sea," keeps finding snakes slithering through the garden; it's a giddy embellishment, suggesting that wherever Elle MacPherson treads, we must be in Eden.


Starring Hugh Grant and Elle MacPherson

Directed by John Duigan

Released by Miramax



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