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Lush 'Sirens' Lures Art on a Sexy Romp


SANTA ANA — "Sirens," set in the 1930s, is a high-class exploitation film about letting yourself go in the lush Australian Blue Mountains. The Rev. Anthony Campion (Hugh Grant) and his wife Estella (Tara Fitzgerald) are visiting the mountain retreat of artist Norman Lindsay (Sam Neill) at the behest of the archbishop of Sydney to persuade him to withdraw his scandalous painting "The Crucified Venus" from an international exhibition. It's not long before the couple become transfixed by pagan revelry and prancing nude models.

This is one of those films that's usually described in deep tones as a "sensual awakening," but, to its credit, the cast seems to be having a high old time acting flouncy and coy. They don't make too much of the "awakening" stuff because they're too busy trying to put the audience into a dreamy, woozy snooze, filled with images of naked Amazonian maidens paddling delicately through lily ponds or wafting through the air in their see-through chiffon nighties. Writer-director John Duigan doesn't have a perfervid imagination, and it's probably just as well. Given the flimsiness of the material, why settle for D. H. Lawrence when you can have the Playboy Channel instead?

There's more than a little of the Playboy Philosophy in Lindsay's spoutings about free love and Bohemia. (Lindsay, a real painter, died in 1969 at the age of 90; so much for clean living.) But he spends most of his time painting while everyone else is panting. His three muse voluptuaries--Sheela (Elle Macpherson), Prue (Kate Frischer) and Giddy (Portia De Rossi)--can't seem to touch anything without fondling it. The prim Estella can't keep her eyes off them and their dalliances with the odd-job man (Mark Gerber) and other assorted locals. She's being "sensually awakened," remember?

Grant is doing his fuddy-dud gent number, but he's aware of how silly the reverend must seem in this roundelay. His Anthony pretends to be a kind of swinger himself, trying to match wits with Lindsay by shocking him with quotes from James Joyce. But he's no match for the lushness or the ladies, and, at least intellectually, he gives in to his frailty, and his wife's, with aplomb. He's a sport.

The movie's sexual imagery is deliberately obvious--lots of snakes winding through the grass and flower petals falling on pillows. It's a soft-porn Eden aerie where all jealousies and passions are perfumed, and everything turns out for the best. In other words, it's a fairy-tale for grown-ups who are afraid to be caught reading Harlequin romances.

And it's Macpherson's screen debut, which ought to be worth a footnote in the film history books (and a photo spread in Playboy's "Sex in the Cinema 1994"). According to the press kit, Macpherson gained 20 pounds for the film, "lending her body a Boticelli contour." It then goes to reassure us that "she resumed her typical diet midway through production to prepare for her next assignment, a cover shoot for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue."



Hugh Grant: Anthony Campion

Tara Fitzgerald: Estella Campion

Sam Neill: Norman Lindsay

Elle Macpherson: Sheela

A Miramax Films release WMG with the participation of British Screen presentation. Director John Duigan. Producer Sue Milliken. Executive producers Sarah Radclyffe, Justin Ackerman, Hans Brockmann. Screenplay by John Duigan. Cinematographer Goeff Burton. Editor Rachel Portman. Costumes Terry Ryan. Music Racehl Portman. Production design Roger Ford. Art director Laurie Faen. Set decorator Kerrie Brown. Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes.

MPAA rating: R, for "abundant nudity and sex-related scenes and for language." Times guidelines: It includes much male and female frontal nudity. * At Edwards South Coast Village theater in Santa Ana, (714) 540-0594. Also in limited release in the Los Angeles area.

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