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Current Rating 8.86/10 | 7 Votes

     I have been reading some feminist film criticism lately, most notably Andrea Weiss' great book "Vampires and Violets: Lesbians in Film." Probably because of this, I had a hard time watching "Sirens." It could serve as the poster child for films using The Male Gaze to view the female body. One reviewer referred to it as "Enchanted April with nipples"; another mentioned that it "looks remarkably like a centerfold layout." I had a few major problems with it, which I will discuss, but first the plot.

Anthony Campion (Hugh Grant), an Anglican priest, and his wife Estella (Tara Fitzgerald) are sent to see a renegade painter, Norman Lindsey (Sam Neill), during their trip to Australia. Lindsey likes to paint scandalous nudes, including one of a crucified Venus de Milo that the church finds particularly offensive. Anthony is supposed to ask Lindsey to reconsider submitting the painting to an exhibition, but Lindsey has other plans for the prudish Campions' visit.

The plan is immediately set in motion, as the painter's models spend most of their time in various states of undress, all in an effort to shock Anthony and his prim wife. But Estella is fascinated by these seemingly liberated women, and she takes particular interest in the youngest, Giddy Portia de Rossi), who seems to be the only one with qualms about disrobing. Sheela (Elle MacPherson), the most forward of them, seems intent on seducing Estella, walking into her room, drawing her while she's sleeping, and trying on her clothing. Meanwhile, Anthony engages in abortive arguments with Lindsey about morality. They are abortive for two reasons: first, the models keep walking in with no clothes on, making Anthony nervous. Second, the loud painter won't let him get a word in edgewise.

The Campions' stay becomes extended due to train problems. Estella becomes increasingly involved with the models and with the blind handyman, Lewis (Ben Mendelsohn). She experiences an awakening of sorts, liberating their marriage of their formerly prudish boredom. The end.

Now, the problems. First is the film's blatant and rude attack on the clergy. I am not Christian, and I am very liberal, but I find that liberals like to make fun of people with deeply held religious feelings. They apparently think that these people are simply deluded, and that enough exposure to "human nature" will cure them of their religion. Having been raised in a religious family, I understand that religion gives a deep meaning and worth to the lives of a lot of people, and it's just not fair to attack them for their beliefs, unless they are getting in your face about it. I understand that Anthony was representing the forces of censorship, but Lindsey didn't even respect him enough to discuss the issue with him. He just goaded and cajoled, while parading his nude models around because he knew it would make the preacher nervous.

Second, the film is blatantly masculine. You could watch any five minutes of it and know that a man directed it. The comments about it looking like a Playboy centerfold are completely accurate, as are some more disturbing aspects of it. One scene shows Estella engaging in a hesitant lesbian act with the three models. Most sex scenes are shot for male viewers, objectifying the body by showing parts of it in closeup and using voyeuristic camera angles and editing. Well, this takes it one step further, forcing the viewer to identify (using point of view shots) with Anthony, who is spying on the proceedings from a nearby bluff. The assumption that all women have lesbian tendencies which are harmless and exploratory is implicit in this scene, as is the notion that all of this is going on for the titillation of the male viewer. Also, there is an unspoken message that women really want to have sex with whatever man is present, even if she protests to the contrary. Also, there is one really terrible scene where Estella dresses Giddy up in her clothes, puts some of her perfume on her, and fixes her hair to look like her own. This is supposed to fool Lewis into thinking that Giddy was really Estella. What the hell is that supposed to mean? Men can't tell the difference between two women without the sense of sight? I could only wonder at what Andrea Weiss would have to say about it.

Third, I got really sick of the heavy-handed use of Biblical and other imagery. The film attempts to exoticize its location by parading a bevy of animals before the screen, the most annoying of which was its use of a snake to clue the viewer in that something sexual was going to happen. Lewis, the handyman, is signified by his Big White Horse, which he strokes gently whenever he can (I wonder what that's supposed to mean...?)

Anyway, I will stop complaining. The acting (especially Hugh Grant and Tara Fitzgerald) was pretty good, and I suppose that Elle Macpherson acquitted herself well, although it was hard to tell. She didn't talk a whole lot. She just took her clothes off. If that's enough for you, then I suppose that you would enjoy the movie.

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