65 – Sirens:
“Relax, it’s just sex.”
The lyrics ending a song called ‘Sexhibition’ on Janet Jackson’s Damita Jo, the first album she released after the infamous Super Bowl controversy. Vilified because the world got a brief glimpse of her nipple on live TV, Janet seemed to be telling America something. She wasn’t the first victim of such controversy and she sure wouldn’t be the last. Female sexuality has always been a touchy subject among the general public. It seems as if there’s an impossible line somewhere, between complaints about objectification and straight-up slut shaming. Sigmund Freud was the one who coined the ‘Madonna-Whore Complex’ (or ‘Virgin-Whore Complex’ if you like) – where he noted that men were more aroused by prostitutes and mistresses than their wives. The reason? They respected their wives too much to think of them in sexual ways, thereby pigeonholing their wives into the ‘Madonna’ category – a female who is pure, chaste and virginal, and therefore a perfect mate. Girls who were too sexual got pigeonholed into the role of the ‘Whore’ – there to be ogled and arousing, and nothing else. To put it bluntly, good girls are chaste and bad girls are sexual. There have been countless works challenging this notion – notably the ballet Swan Lake, the novel Les Miserables and Christina Aguilera’s second album Stripped. But the one I’m interested in is the 1993 drama Sirens.
The film oddly opens in black and white (the rest is in colour) on an ocean liner. It’s sometime in the 1920s, judging by the bobbed hair among the female passengers. We get a glimpse of our protagonist; an English woman called Estella, played by Tara Fitzgerald. We get told a bit about her in this dialogue-free scene: a man passing by takes time to admire her. Estella’s reaction indicates that she doesn’t think too highly of someone checking her out. If you check the complex outlined by Dr Freud, Estella would like to think of herself as a Madonna and is a little offended that the man is behaving as if she’s a Whore.
We switch to colour as we meet Estella’s husband, an Anglican priest called Tony (Hugh Grant). This was one of three films released within a month in America – alongside Four Weddings and a Funeral and Bitter Moon – that brought Mr Grant to the attention of Hollywood. Tony and Estella are on their way to a new parish, but they’re being asked by the bishop to stop by the house of one Norman Lindsay.
Norman Lindsay, pictured above, was an extraordinary Australian man who lived quite a rich life. He wrote several novels, both for adults and children. One of his books even helped inspire a few notable poets of the day. He had a career as both a political cartoonist and amateur boxer. But he was first and foremost an artist, and first and foremost a very controversial one. A few examples of his work…
If you’ve had a glance at classic paintings, you may be wondering if the nudity was really such a big deal. Well it was and it wasn’t. The general public in the 18th century was fine with nudity in paintings as long as it was fantasy related; nymphs, angels, fairies, mermaids, goddesses or fictional characters could show as much skin as they liked. But that’s where the line ended. Impressionist painter Edouard Manet caused a scandal with his Luncheon On The Grass – which showed a woman in the buff while having a picnic with two gentlemen. Other artists continued to shock the public with paintings of naked prostitutes, mistresses and even everyday women. Norman Lindsay was one such artist. In fact, when a set of nudes were burned by American officials for their risqué content, Lindsay just shrugged and said “Don’t worry, I’ll do more.”
Tony and Estella are to convince Norman Lindsay to withdraw some of his more controversial paintings from an exhibition, so they travel to New South Wales. The town they get to is quite quaint and deserted, but they’re able to bum a lift off two local men. You can imagine how Estella feels at being sandwiched between them in the front seat. They find the house empty, with a note that the Lindsays have gone out for a picnic – and that they’re to make themselves at home. So they fall asleep on the grass until the others arrive. We’re introduced to Mr Lindsay himself (Sam Neill), his wife Rose (Pamela Rabe), their maid Giddy (Portia De Rossi), their young daughters and their two models Pru (Kate Fischer) and Sheila (Elle Macpherson). Yes, Elle Macpherson as in the one who’s on the poster. Her character Sheila is prominent, but she’s probably the fifth most important character in the film – after Estella, Tony, Giddy and Norman. It makes one wonder why she’s on the posters so much.
We get to see the inside of Norman’s studio, which is actually the real deal. The scenes were shot on location in the real Lindsay household – which is now a gallery and museum to the man. Giddy explains that they’ll be doing a painting based off the Sirens from Greek mythology: creatures with haunting singing voices that lured sailors to their deaths. She’s a model too, but she keeps her clothes on.
Talk at the dinner table reveals quite a bit about Norman Lindsay’s character: he believes that Atlantis existed and that he had a past life who lived there. He’s also not receptive to the idea of withdrawing his controversial paintings, feeling it’s up to the public to decide for themselves if they want to see them. Tony doesn’t like that idea because that would require them to see the paintings first. Estella actually wonders whether or not a simple painting can cause as much damage as the Church believes. This is interrupted when Norman has his models put on a bit of a show for his two daughters; they dress as fairies and sit on the swings in the garden, giving the impression that they’re flying. Another reference to The Swing? Gets an A+ in my book!
Next morning, Estella is persuaded to go swimming with the models. It’s here that we get to learn the characters of them. Sheila appears to be the ringleader – a free-spirited wannabe artist with little respect for personal boundaries. Pru is the socialism fan, and a bit of a snotty know nothing know-it-all. Giddy meanwhile wants to be an actress, as she’s been very ambitious since her father was eaten by a shark. But she’s still willing to get into the water, which makes all the people who got spooked by Jaws look like such wimps. Giddy also seems to be rather young and naïve, evidenced by the fact that she and Estella wear bathing suits to the lake and the other two are happy to go in nude. Giddy and Estella also panic when the blind handyman Devlin stops by, while Pru and Sheila offer him to take a dip with them.
The news back at the house is that the train has been delayed, so Tony and Estella will have to stay for a couple more days. There’s also an editorial in the paper about Norman’s paintings, where the writer uses some choice words to insinuate that the models who pose nude must be on drugs or something. In a nutshell, there must be something wrong with them if they want to pose for such paintings. Outside, Estella overhears a rather risqué conversation between the models – about erections and the like. Although Giddy insists that her mind is pure and innocent, it’s clear she’s secretly fascinated. As is Estella.
Tony appeals to Rose and suggests that she use her influence as Norman’s wife to convince her husband to withdraw The Crucified Venus from the exhibition. Rose responds that she was the model for it. This is quite true to real life – as Rose posed for many of her husband’s paintings and was one of his most recognisable models. She was also every bit as extraordinary as her husband, acting as his business manager and the printer for whenever he dabbled in etchings. The point the movie is making here is that Rose manages to be a highly powerful and successful businesswoman, and loving wife and mother – while also happily posing nude for her husband’s paintings.
Estella finds Sheila in her room trying on her clothes for a date that night. Sheila talks about her father and how he was killed by a shark – which seems to be a requirement for Norman Lindsay’s models. They found an arm with the watch still on it and buried it – but still using a full-sized coffin. Talk turns to the blind man Devlin, who Giddy has a long-standing attraction to. This scene serves to differentiate Sheila from Pru just a little. While Pru is a bit of a snob who doesn’t really know what she’s talking about, Sheila just seems very blunt and forward. But sometimes even friendly. It’s actually pretty interesting how they contrast her and the models with Estella; the models all have long flowing hair, while Estella has bobbed hair that’s heavily styled. It’s probably one of the few times I’ve seen a character dressed in the latest fashions to indicate that they’re repressed – especially when the bob as a hairstyle was symbolic of women’s liberation. So Estella’s appearance could be a visual indicator that she does want to break out of her repressed personality.
There’s a rather heated argument at the dinner table that night, regarding the Church’s attitude towards sexuality. Norman’s theory is that the Christian notion that sex is shameful and evil comes from the fact that pagan traditions celebrated sexuality – and that was their only way to compete with it. Notably, Jesus’s teachings said nothing about sex and that it was a “bunch of crusty old men” that decided the human body was something awful. Hence Eve being responsible for getting herself and Adam kicked out of the Garden of Eden. A very interesting theory, but one that I won’t go into further detail on, before this turns into a very different sort of review.
As Pru and Sheila go to spend some time with the two farm men, we get a very telling scene between Tony and Estella. The wife tells her husband “sometimes I think you have too high an opinion of me”, which is her way of challenging the Madonna-Whore Complex. And I think it’s a very well-balanced situation they have here. Tony’s certainly not intentionally being a prude. It’s clear he loves his wife very much, but at the same time his idolisation of her as a pure Madonna is pretty damaging for her self-esteem. She sees that the likes of Pru and Sheila are quite happy being the way they are, and it seems as if she’s fascinated by them. But the conflict comes from trying to live up to her husband’s expectations of her as a good, pure, chaste wife. And it’s not helped by him implying that there’s something mentally wrong with the girls for wanting to pose nude.
Estella is woken in the middle of the night by the sounds of giggling from outside. She creeps over to Pru and Sheila’s room where she spies the two playing a game of strip poker with their dates. Her unease isn’t helped when she wakes up to find Sheila in the room, having been sketching her while she’s asleep. A little after that, she has another peep, this time at the girls posing for Norman. The look on her face says she’s curious rather than repulsed.
She’s out walking when she sees the blind man Devlin by the lake. He’s also in the nude and starts to masturbate. Again, Estella is fascinated rather than repulsed. I want to commend the movie for not demonising male sexuality as something perverted and gross, like so many other things like to. When Devlin’s dog barks to tell him someone’s there, she flees. But she comes across the models going into town all dressed up. They persuade her to come and dress up too – and it looks as if Estella likes the chance to let her hair down for a bit. In the local pub, the rather prudish staff refuse to serve them. The farm boys that dated Pru and Sheila the other night try to pretend they don’t know them. Again, another nice little touch by the movie – showing that the girls who get pigeonholed into the role of the Whore can be bothered by the labels too. But it’s Estella who stands up for the girls, rather awesomely reminding the landlady that it’s against the law to be open on a Sunday (when she says drinking outside is illegal).
It’s time for Estella to get to know Pru – who has a dead father too. The streak is broken, as he was not eaten by a shark. But like Sheila’s, they only ever found a limb. Estella finds this unintentional running gag a little hilarious, but she’s distracted when she watches a local tomboy playing bulldog in the stream with the boys. The models prepare to play too, but their parents call them away. We cut back to Norman’s studio where Tony once again is trying to convince the artist to withdraw his paintings. Tony now gets personal and again goes back to the Madonna-Whore Complex. Rose puts him in his place with a rather brilliant line.
Tony: “I can assure you my wife is about as far removed from your debauched harridans as animal is from vegetable.”
Rose: “And which is she, Mr Campion? Animal or vegetable?”
The women have now gone back to the lake, where Giddy is now very tipsy. We get probably the most erotic scene in the movie, where Pru and Sheila take the opportunity to…ahem…tickle her while she’s lying down. After a while, Estella joins in. It’s a very sensual scene that’s key in the character growth of both Giddy and Estella. To further underline what’s happening, the white dress Giddy is wearing is shown to have a gold petticoat – which is revealed as the girls lift up the skirt. Tony is walking along and spies this little scene, shocked that his wife would participate in such a thing.
The women are later spying on Devlin, and Sheila notices that he has Estella’s hat from earlier. So as a joke, they tie her to a tree and watch as Devlin approaches. She asks to be untied, which he takes as cue to rub his hands over her until he finds the rope. This is followed by an insignificant, yet really cute scene of the models singing the Irish folk song “I’ll Tell Me Ma” with Norman and Rose’s children. Things are quite tense between Tony and Estella; the latter clearly being unnerved ever since their arrival. This comes to a head in church the next day. Estella remembers the tomboy playing with the local boys and now imagines herself playing with them. She then hallucinates that she’s completely naked in the middle of the church. While she’s clearly horrified at such a thing, you’re bound to chuckle at the fact that she tries to cover herself up when she’s not actually naked.
Estella finds Giddy even drunker later on. She’s moping about Devlin, and the fact that he doesn’t seem to like her. She also confesses that the reason she hasn’t posed nude for the paintings is because she’s just shy. Estella looks in on Devlin posing nude for Norman briefly, before trying to call Sheila and Pru out for what they’re doing to Giddy. The two girls accuse her of being jealous, which is actually a pretty reasonable theory. A little later, Tony is with the models and Norman, asking why the women in his paintings have to be so lustful. He thinks love should be a gentle thing. Norman counters that there is a fierceness and passion to love, while also describing himself as a shrinking violet – and one that chooses to hide in his own mind rather than out in the world. Tony finds that a moot point, as the paintings still go out into the world. He’s worried that such risqué images might inspire people to rape or do worse things.
Norman and Rose raise the rather great point that if someone becomes a rapist after seeing one of the paintings, then it’s probably the person’s fault rather than the art. Pru unfortunately uses this as an opportunity to praise the emerging socialism trend in Europe. Tony rather awesomely shuts her up, getting properly angry for the first time in the film. Estella meanwhile finds that Devlin has returned her hat. She also wonders if Tony has a thing for Giddy, as he’s shown quite an interest in her. But what he’s really interested in is making sure she stays pure and doesn’t get corrupted by Pru and Sheila’s influence.
Husband and wife are shown making love for the first time in the movie. But it doesn’t look as if it has much passion in it. Again, I’m happy that the movie doesn’t paint Tony as a sex-hating prude. He and his wife have a loving and somewhat sexual marriage. The problem is mostly just Estella’s repression and fear of her own sexuality. But it seems that her fear is ebbing away, judging by the dream she has: she goes into the studio to have some passionate rendezvous with Devlin. The scene manages to be both passionate and tender, interspersed with shots of Sheila on the swing outside.
Next morning, Estella finds Giddy hung over. She talks about overhearing Devlin in the studio doing it with someone! That means Estella’s dream wasn’t a dream! Giddy thankfully assumes it was either Pru or Sheila, but she’s still very annoyed about it. She swears off men for life – which becomes quite amusing if one remembers that she’s played by Portia De Rossi.
Tony walks in on the models being painted, and sees that Giddy is now posing nude. That night at the dinner table, Devlin is playing…well not footsie but the hand version with Estella. The tension isn’t helped by Giddy throwing barbs at Pru and Sheila. Estella retreats to her room, and seems she wants to confess about her tryst with Devlin. But Tony says that she should keep some secrets to herself. It’s up to you to decide whether this means Tony knows she did it with Devlin, or suspects she did something or not – and this is his way of forgiving her and telling her not to let the place get to her.
Estella does damage control by telling Giddy that she must have dreamed that she saw Devlin doing it with someone. She was certainly drunk enough. So why doesn’t she go after him right now? Estella gives Giddy one of her dresses and a bit of her perfume. She also makes her put on her wedding ring, and ties her hair up. This is to make Devlin think that Giddy is Estella, which is a bit sneaky if you ask me.
After pimping Giddy out, Estella now lapses into a very surreal dream. She walks to the water in her nightgown, gets in and is then surrounded by the three models. The way they rise out of the water as Estella lies floating clearly is meant to evoke a sort of baptism. This obviously represents how Estella has now got a taste of what passion really feels like – and has now been shown the light. It’s quite hard to visually represent a sexual awakening on screen but the film does it absolutely beautifully. It also calls back to the earlier scene where all the girls tickle the half-conscious Giddy.
Estella wakes up the next morning to find Giddy…well…giddy after her lovemaking session with Devlin. She doesn’t think she’ll do it again though, thus sparing us from worrying about any more rape by fraud in the future. She finds Tony outraged – because Norman has put her in his painting of the Sirens. He expects Estella to be outraged too, but she merely compliments him on how well represented her. We then see her exchange a look with Sheila, who smiles in quite a different way than how we’ve seen her before.
Tony and Estella are on the train home, and Estella decides to pass the time with a little raunchiness. Although Tony is shocked, he clearly enjoys it. The implication here is that Estella will use her experiences in the film to give her marriage the passion it’s been lacking. And it looks as if Tony will reciprocate. The movie ends with Estella having a dream about all five Sirens now standing nude on the top of a cliff.
I’ve always been fascinated by the Siren myths and it’s really fun for me to see how they get represented in the media. The myths portray them as a source of dangerous temptation. Even the modern expression ‘siren song’ is used to mean something that you know is going to end badly but the temptation to do it is still so strong. A siren can also refer to a femme fatale type. What’s interesting about this movie is that it portrays the Sirens in a different light to how they usually are. The Sirens in this case – Pru, Sheila and technically Rose too – are the alluring presence who lead the Ingénues Estella and Giddy to discover their sexuality. In this case, giving into the metaphorical siren song results in freedom and liberation. The ‘corruption’ of Giddy and Estella is actually a sign of positive character growth. This of course criticises the hell out of the belief that love and sex are like night and day. Estella loves her husband, but it’s not until she embraces her sexuality that she truly becomes happy. This kind of goes hand in hand with a sort of alternate interpretation of the snake in the Garden of Eden; at various points in the movie, we see a snake slithering about the studio. In the Bible, the snake tempts Adam and Eve to ruin. But the movie seems to be suggesting that the snake was actually leading them to liberation. On a more superficial level, the movie is beautifully shot and well-acted. Both Elle Macpherson and Portia De Rossi used the success of the film to create some successful acting careers. Hugh Grant was the same, becoming quite the heartthrob for British and American women. It’s hard for me to describe the feeling this film gives me – and I assure you I’m not talking about *that*. It manages to create an atmosphere where you feel almost as if you’re in there with the characters. It also has a beautiful surreal quality to it that few other films are able to quite duplicate.
I’m sadly struggling to find a quote or one-liner to lead into the grades here, but I assure you I’m not going to resort to pictures of naked women.
*Story? There’s not exactly a plot, but that doesn’t mean there’s no story. The themes of embracing sexuality and the exploration of passion and love are very well used here. A+
*Characters? Estella and Giddy’s character growth is a high point. I said earlier that it felt as if you were there with them – and thus I was so caught up in getting to know these people across the film. I also think that Norman Lindsay and his wife Rose were very well represented here – which is more than can be said for countless other figures in Hollywood biopics. A+
*Performances? Tara Fitzgerald is criminally underrated, and I was incredibly pissed that she was so wasted in last year’s Exodus: Gods & Kings. Hugh Grant also had the hard task of conveying that Tony is a good guy deep down, but just has some rather damaging views. I also think that this was a very good role for Elle Macpherson. Rather than just playing a decorative love interest, Sheila is really brought to life. Portia De Rossi turns in a fun, quirky performance as Giddy. Everyone else is also incredibly solid. A+
*Visuals? The visuals of the movie are very understated but that doesn’t make it less striking at all. Australia is the scenery porn capital of the world, and the setting lent itself to some beautiful shots. The surreal feeling was also very well pulled off. A+
*Special Effects? N/A
*Anything Else? The movie has a lot of shots of insignificant things that could be symbolism, or the director just trolling the audience. I like a movie that leaves it up to the viewer to guess what these little things are about – such as the snake, the swing etc. A
We move from a surreal arthouse film to one based on a surreal video game franchise, with Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within next.