When an art exhibition in Australia features a painting of a naked woman on a cross, the outraged bishop of Sydney dispatches a priest to the countryside. His mission: convince the artist Norman Lindsay (Sam Neill) to withdraw the painting from the exhibition. But when the priest arrives with his wife to the artist’s secluded house, they must contend with the uninhibited lifestyle of the determined artist and his free-spirited and frequently naked models. That’s the premise of “Sirens,” a 1993 Australian film that features Hugh Grant as Anthony Campion, the Anglican priest and Tara Fitzgerald as his wife, Estella Campion.
Director John Duigan sets up the narrative quite nicely by thrusting us into an art gallery and showing painting after painting of traditional and quite tame scenes. We get a glimpse of Estella as a man smiles at her lustfully and she rebuffs his come-on. The Bishop of Sydney, played by Vincent Ball, directs Anthony to the only painting covered by a tarpaulin in the gallery. The tarp comes down and the 2 clergyman look at it smugly. By Anthony’s boastful assurance to the Bishop, we can tell he not only thinks the painting (of a woman on the cross) if rubbish but that his assigned errand to the artist’s lair will result in an easy win for the Church and morality.
The plot becomes a fish out of water story when Anthony and Estella travel to a dusty little hick town and must bargain with a gritty group of roughshod men at the bar for a ride to Lindsay’s compound. When they finally arrive at the artist’s house, they meet the liberal Lindsay and his quartet of lustful “sirens,” including the eerily pushy Sheela (Elle Macpherson) and the wanton Pru (Kate Fischer). The two beauties set their sights on “corrupting” Estella, whose prim and proper attitude immediately casts her as an unsympathetic character. Sheela and Kate give Estella a massive amount of unwanted attention and often walk around nude, setting up some serious lesbian overtones. They also work on another of Lindsay’s models, Giddy (Portia de Rossi), a naive young woman who wants to explore her sexuality with a blind workman.
Anthony and Lindsay spend the movie discussing art and morality while Estella slowly succombs to the salaciousness around her. Director Duigan provides lots of dreamlike shots of the landscape that imply the naturalness of artistic freedom and sexual liberation. The film works as a study of contrasts in highly-erotic situations. The story is based on the activities of the real-life artist Norman Lindsay (born 1879 and died 1969), and the filmmakers shot the movie at his estate.