VICTORIAN PRINCIPLE

Hugh Grant, star of Mike Newell's current Four Weddings and a Funeral, is also the star of the Australian John Duigan's new Sirens. Grant plays a young, vaguely liberal English vicar who is sent by the bishop of Sydney to the outback. His mission is to persuade painter Norman Lindsay (Sam Neill) to withdraw an allegedly profane picture from an exhibition of Aussie artists' work. The picture in question depicts a nude Venus crucified by puritanical figures--perfectly acceptable subject matter by today's standards, but the film is set in the Thirties.

When the vicar and his beautiful, tightlipped wife (Tara Fitzgerald) arrive at the remote home, they find themselves confronted by the attractions of the life that Lindsay has set up for himself--he lives with a proudly beautiful wife and two daughters, as well as the three Amazonian models who populate his canvases. One of these (Elle MacPherson) is sweet-natured and apparently polymorphously perverse, another (Portia de Rossi) is a young, middle-class maid who models only if she can remain clad (to preserve her "mystique," she says), a third (the loveliest, Kate Fischer) is an affected Socialist.

During their brief stay, the vicar debates aesthetic morality with Lindsay while his wife watches the erotic activities of the three models (with whom, by the way, Lindsay appears to have only platonic relations). She becomes aroused by them, and eventually joins in. That's the plot. The film is intended to be erotic, and it is, sort of, but only in a rather self-conscious way.

It's much more irritating than it is sexy. First of all, Lindsay's art, what we see of it, seems too aesthetically crappy to be worth the trouble--a cheesy blending of second-rate Hogarth and Arthur Rackham with risqu‚ Victorian postcards. Even allowing that it's Australia in the Thirties, was this stuff really among the best the continent could offer?

But more annoying still is the directorial ham-fistedness of Duigan, who is a really gifted filmmaker, especially when it comes to erotica--his Wide Sargasso Sea was one of last year's best movies, and his Flirting, which was amazingly visually chaste, was nonetheless one of the sexiest of teen romances. Here, for the first time, Duigan seems to be playing the coarse Aussie for an international audience. He pushes the stereotype of Australians as lusty, uncouth, sun-burnished sexual savages, and he even shoos koalas and wombats and other such fauna through his shots for cheap travelogue thrills.

Still, Sirens might be harmless enough if it weren't so smug. The vicar's arguments in favor of censoring the picture are stupidly patronizing, but the clich‚d free-love platitudes which Lindsay and disciples spout in response aren't much less silly.

Lindsay, who enjoys baiting the vicar, is far too impressed with himself and unshakable in his viewpoint, which is clearly the one which Duigan endorses. In fact, my own beliefs are far closer to those of the artist than to the vicar's, but the latter is so much more thoughtful and likable a figure that I rooted for him in the debates. When he finally impatiently blurted out "Balls!" in response to some bit of fashionable leftist piety from the Socialist woman, I wanted to applaud.

It may be argued that these criticisms, valid or not, are in any case off the point of the film, which is to be a turn-on. The real protagonist, after all, isn't the vicar but his wife, and the real subject is her sexual liberation. It should be said that Fitzgerald gives a fine, quietly alert performance, and that the tentative quality of her arousal is both the most touching and the sexiest aspect of the film. Neill and Grant are both competent, but the three models in the title roles have a rough time of it, with MacPherson faring worst; she's physically startling, but clueless as an actress.

None of this would be insurmountable, though, if Duigan, who also wrote the script, hadn't placed the simpleminded free-love didacticism so firmly at the center of Sirens, thus spoiling the picture for those of us who don't need our turn-ons to have a political charter (politicizing the erotic, though occasionally necessary, is a dreary business). Duigan's (and Lindsay's) point seems to be that puritanical sexual inhibition, particularly as regards nudity, is largely a product of the middle-class sensibility which regards the body as a commodity--the rich, it's implied, don't need to protect their "mystique," and the poor can't be bothered to.

Though incomplete, there's an interesting idea here--but Duigan's critique of this attitude would be a heck of a lot more convincing if Sirens weren't, itself, so giggly and prurient. Tarty Victorian postcards, fun though they can be, are just about as middle-class as you can get.

 
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