CINEMA / Hugh Grant: the embarrassment goes on

EARTHINESS is all in John Duigan's Sirens (15), a hymn to horny hands and minds. Its hero (Sam Neill) is the Australian artist Norman Lindsay (1879-1969), whose paintings satirising religion and glorifying female flesh were denounced in their day as blasphemous. The film takes place in the early 1930s at Lindsay's lush estate in the Blue Mountains, near Sydney. An English clergyman (Hugh Grant), with wife (Tara Fitzgerald) in tow, has arrived to negotiate with Lindsay on behalf of a gallery which is chary of exhibiting him. The values of Lindsay and his menage of models are pitted against those of the English: sensuality v repression, rawness v refinement, sex v sentimentality. The unbridled wild wins out every time (though the suggestiveness is never even softly pornographic). Hardly a scene passes without some bush creature scuttling across the screen, rendering the English couple's gait still stiffer. The odds haven't been so stacked in favour of the Aussies since the last Ashes series.

They even have Elle MacPherson on their side. Making her acting debut as one of Lindsay's models, she does a nice line in sultry comedy, forever taunting Fitzgerald to get in touch with her raunchier side. Catwalkers such as Andie MacDowell and Geena Davis have also excelled lately in comedy. Perhaps the beautiful find it easier to laugh at themselves. On the downside, these model leading ladies take the movies yet further from everyday reality. Still, MacPherson has only a couple of wooden moments, and is superbly directed. Duigan cuts during one love scene to show her outside on a swing. Shot in rapturous slow motion, and wearing a long white dress, she looks like an amused Aphrodite.

Hugh Grant stakes out no new territory with his Oxonian vicar, but gads about the old patch with his usual charm. His suavity seems anachronistic, a little too slickly knowing even for a character labelled progressive. Yet nobody today acts embarrassment better - is more fluent in its language of hesitations. He also catches an authentic note of

upper-class self-satisfaction and intellectual bullishness. He has a marvellous moment when, in danger of being out-argued by Lindsay, he stammers: 'I don't think the church can be criticised for everything done in-n-n-n-n-n-IN its name.' It's funny and moving, the essence of a type of Englishman, both spirited and awkward. Better still is his one sex scene. It's shot from above, and only Grant's shoulder blades, in their navy-blue pyjama top, seem to move.

The surprise casting is not MacPherson but Sam Neill. Physically, he is a long way from Lindsay, who had a slight frame and puckish, beaky face. Neill, having made a career out of solidity, is here the model of flamboyance, an emotional, if not geographical, world away from his last role as bottled-up Stewart, The Piano's flagstone of philistinism. Neill doesn't quite bring off the change, lacking Lindsay's whimsy and camp, but he adds a larky slyness to his repertoire.

As in his studies of adolescence and calf love, The Year My Voice Broke (1987) and Flirting (1989), Dui gan gets enjoyable ensemble performances out of his cast. Many of the best scenes take place around Lindsay's dinner table, where his nymphs bubble with malicious high spirits, to the guests' discomfort. It's easy to see an anti-imperialist thrust in Dui gan's work - his last film was an underrated adaptation of Jean Rhys's poetic study of colonial and male oppression, Wide Sargasso Sea - and here there's a schematic division between the stuck-up English and down-to-earth natives (the film's real hero is a taciturn, half-blind hunk living in the bush). But Duigan's own script is sympathetic to all. He's the most generous of directors, with a gift for moments of lyrical beauty.

Sirens is already being used as a stick with which to beat Hugh Grant's other comedy of the summer, Four Weddings and a Funeral. It's true that Sirens is a subtler, more intelligent film - though Four Weddings' aim was more to be funny than thoughtful. But in the current state of the cinema we can't afford to be exclusive. If you haven't already, you should see both.

Love and Human Remains (18) is the latest feature from French-Canadian director Denys Arcand, and his first in English. It mines the same vein of cynical, almost apocalyptic humour as his earlier hits, The Decline of the American Empire (1986) and Jesus of Montreal (1989). The setting is a comfortless urban world (filmed in Montreal) in which characters wait forlornly for the one person who will understand them; dating and coupling, and parting in disillusion. Arcand again uses a lot of television material, as his characters surf from channel to channel. At times they seem to be huddling for warmth in a blizzard of images.

The film follows its gay hero, David (Thomas Gibson), a former actor now working as a waiter, through a series of listless liaisons. We also watch the efforts of his flatmate, Candy (Ruth Marshall), to find a partner - male or female. Gibson, his voice soggy with self-pity, can resemble a more wooden Rupert Everett (that bad), but also has a dry wit. He's playing a character whose weary flippancy is a form of resignation, a relinquishing of all ambition and hope. That seems to be how Arcand and screenwriter Brad Fraser, on whose hit stageplay the film is based, view all their characters. David's friends, whether a dominatrix prostitute or a misogynistic civil servant and former lover, are the most dilatory of slackers. 'I never knew anyone born after 1965 who wasn't incomplete somehow,' someone recalls. Arcand's characters live in a hopelessly fragmented world, left to shore up scraps of affection.

There's also a serial killer subplot, which works its way towards a flunked Hitchcockian climax. Arcand seems unsure of the power of his dark comedy, and overcompensates by stuffing the film with melodrama, cramming every possible neurosis or crisis into it, from bulimia to Aids. At his best he makes his camera seem as disaffected as his characters, so the gaudy joy of a rock singer is shot in icy close-up, as if she were a scientific specimen. At his worst, he slips into thrillerese. He is a second-rank director, but a world-class doom-monger.

The message of The Flintstones (U) is that we should stick to simplicity. That is the conclusion of Fred Flintstone (John Goodman), promoted way above his station to fit in with the capitalist schemes of his boss, Kyle MacLachlan. At the end, Fred tells us that having always wanted to be somebody, when he finally achieved it, he became somebody he didn't like. Why then didn't the movie take its own advice, instead of creating an unwieldy mess out of a sprightly kids' cartoon?

Much of the television series' appeal lay in its wit in reimagining household appliances in the Stone Age - guzzling pigs acting as waste- disposal units, and so forth. Creatures became creature comforts, with a flick of the animator's pen. All this is now laboriously realised physically, so that state-of-the-art technology is used to re-create what were trifling anachronistic conceits. Elsewhere the humour consists entirely of pratfalls and puns. The 32 scriptwriters' idea of a joke is to suffix every name with rock. The opening title announces the film as a 'Steven Spielrock' production. And it's downhill from there, with an avalanche of rubbish at our heels.

It might have worked if the director, Brian Levant, had imposed a look or provided a focus. Instead he is dragged along by the next feeble set piece or lame gag. There's a reasonably engrossing plot - though it has a massive inconsistency at its centre - and there are good performances from Goodman and Elizabeth Perkins as Fred and Wilma, Rick Moranis as Barney Rubble, and MacLachlan, as a villain who has stepped out of a David Lynch movie. He wears a pelt on his back which may once have been a pair of Nicolas Cage's trousers. Try as these actors might, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that they've hit rock bottom.

You're better off seeing the superbly restored Snow White (U), first released in 1937, and now back for what is billed as its final

cinema showing of the century. What price The Flintstones still being watched in 2051?

Cinema details: Review, page 66.

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