Upon looking up John Duigan’s Sirens (1994) on the Internet Movie Database, I was surprised to see that the film had managed to stir up a degree of controversy among the site’s self-appointed reviewers. The lion’s share of the remarks are positive, but it wasn’t the existence of negative ones that surprised me—it was the anger behind them, as if the posters had been personally insulted by the movie. (That some of these dismissed the film as “soft-core porn” and complained that “like most European films”—never mind that it’s an Australian film—it is “too obsessed with sex and sensuality” probably explains much.) It surprised me mostly because Sirens has always seemed a very gentle, charming and completely unthreatening work to me. Watching it again, I still found it that way, though I began to understand how some people might find it threatening.
Duigan’s film is a fictionalized portrait of Australian artist Norman Lindsay, though the film was shot at his home, uses his name, the names of his wife and children and some of his artwork. The movie is built around the story of a young Anglican priest, Anthony Campion (Hugh Grant), being sent—along with his prim wife Estella (Tara Fitzgerald)—to persuade Lindsay to remove a painting deemed “blasphemous” from a show of his works. It is not a true story, but it’s the kind of story that could have been true. The great “sin” in Duigan’s film, it seems, lies in the way it normalizes nudity, sexuality and sensuality—especially since it does so in a setting that is obviously meant to symbolize the Garden of Eden. If that sort of thing bothers you, then Sirens isn’t for you. If it doesn’t, then it’s apt to be a thoroughly pleasurable experience.
Sirens is certainly one of the most beautiful movies you’re likely to see—not just in its depiction of the Australian landscape (never seen to better advantage), but also in its flights of artistic fancy. Images of Lindsay’s three models presented as floating fairies against the night sky, rose petals falling on the sleeping Estella Campion, and a marvelously sensual scene based on Millais’ painting Ophelia will linger in the mind long after the film is over. It’s a truly gorgeous film—and apparently a far more dangerous one than I’d ever imagined!