Monday, February 25, 2013

The Seduction Of The Obvious: Sirens

The Good: Wonderful acting, Great direction, Decent character development, Engaging themes
The Bad: Sometimes thematically heavy-handed, Frequently very awkward
The Basics: Sirens explores well the conflict between art and religion when a young minister tries to convince an eccentric artist not to exhibit his most controversial work.

Tonight, I took the opportunity to return to some things I have not for many, many years. In the last place my wife and I lived, we had very limited kitchen access. So, for almost the first four years of our marriage, I did not cook her my extraordinary lasagna. Tonight, I did just that. While I was doing prep and after we ate, I put in a film that I have not seen since I was in high school: Sirens. Despite my wife looking at me with more than a little bit of shock that I saw this film – which had quite a bit of nudity in it – while in high school, I am pleased to say that Sirens is as good as I remember it being.

Actually, there were some additional elements that were enjoyable for me now that I did not catch as a younger person. While I have always enjoyed Sirens’s direct approach to exploring the conflict between art and religion, I had not seen Portia de Rossi in anything before this (there was nothing as it turns out) and it would be years after before I saw her in anything and I never made the correlation before tonight! Sirens is an explicit and potent exploration of the conflict between art and religion, with one woman ending up as the focal point of the attraction of several women, a man, and an artist’s eye. The film has a very slow build, but Sirens is ultimately very satisfying and it remains very relevant, even now.

Minister Anthony Campion and his repressed wife Estella arrive in Australia at the residence of the artist Norman Lindsay. Lindsay is a painter whose nudes and religiously-themed works have stirred up a great deal of controversy. Campion wants to convince the artist not to show his controversial piece depicting the crucifixion of a woman in an upcoming show. The Campions are shocked by how openly flirtatious Lindsay’s models, Sheela, Giddy, and Pru are. Lindsay tries to create a magical atmosphere for the children on the estate by having the models pretend to be fairies out in the garden.

In getting to know the three women and the help around the facility, Devlin, Estella slowly begins to shed her inhibitions and become a more well-rounded sexual being. In addition to becoming seduced by the modeler’s lifestyle, she has vivid fantasies about the other women, Devlin, and art and free-thought in general.

Sirens is not only thematically liberal and very straightforward with its presentation of how art is not inherently bad or good (that the viewers must judge and find what they believe to be art and what is offensive), it is occasionally heavy-handed. Sirens is wonderful in promoting the relationship between art and religion and it challenges viewers to not find its content – which has a lot of nudity and married people opening themselves up to fantasies and seductions by other people – offensive. But, amid the sophisticated argument in favor of artistic freedom, director John Duigan goes visually over-the-top with frequent uses of snakes in the imagery. We get it: Estella is being seduced by the potential of “evil.” Duigan has created an ideal, Eden-like setting, so the presence of snakes is just obvious, painfully so.

The characters of Anthony, Estella, and Norman Lindsay are memorable ones. Anthony Campion is a painfully awkward and somewhat ridiculous young minister and he is portrayed with surprising humor by Hugh Grant. This is one of Grant’s more subtle roles, one where he is not simply banking on his good looks or his smile in order to sell the character. In fact, I cannot think of a role where Hugh Grant has a more stiff body language to his character than in Sirens. Norman Lindsay is well-portrayed by Sam Neill, but his character is a somewhat generic mouthpiece for a lot of exposition and art theory.

Much of Sirens is really about Estella and she and Giddy (Portia de Rossi) play characters on converging arcs. Giddy is attracted to Anthony and yet wants to be more than just a model or an object of attraction. Estella has lived a very sheltered life and by actually talking with Giddy, she begins to open up to possibilities bigger than her prior experiences. The arc for the character is very realistic and takes an organic amount of time as Estella and Anthony find themselves continually unable to leave the Lindsay estate. Estella is played by Tara Fitzgerald and I was surprised by how this film, which allows her to play a decent range and a realistic amount of character growth, did not open a ton of doors for her.

Sirens may not be subtle, but it is a wonderful, memorable film and it makes philosophical arguments entirely enjoyable!

For other films about artists, please visit my reviews of:
Cradle Will Rock
The Girl With The Pearl Earring


For other films, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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