FILM / Something for the weekend?: Nudity, scandal and Hugh Grant. Could 'Sirens' be the film to make John Duigan a household name? Anthony Quinn reports

AS A recipe for a summer sizzler it's just about unbeatable: the Most Famous Man in England (Hugh Grant), Antipodean supermodel du jour (Elle MacPherson) and more nudity than a Pre-Raphaelite slumber party without the pyjamas. Put them together and you have Sirens, a tremulously witty examination of unbuttoned sensuality in Australia's Blue Mountains. Or is it? Inevitably, with this much naked flesh on display, some will turn up expecting something unbuttoned in the blue movie line, but there's not much director John Duigan can do about that: 'It's a hard film to classify,' he says. 'I suppose you could call it a romantic comedy . . . it certainly isn't a skinflick. If somebody goes in simply to relax in their raincoat then they'll get a rude shock.'

A rude shock also galvanises the film's plot. In the 1930s, the Australian artist Norman Lindsay scandalised respectable society with his extravagantly erotic paintings and sculptures of the female nude. One painting in particular, The Crucified Venus, was damned by the Church as blasphemous for its depiction of Christ as a naked woman, with clergymen and lawyers cast as her tormentors. In Sirens, Duigan has braided a fictional anecdote into the controversy. A callow Anglican minister, Anthony Campion (Hugh Grant), is asked by his bishop to pay a call on Lindsay (played by Sam Neill) and, if possible, persuade him to withdraw the offending painting from a public exhibition. Fired with righteous intentions, Campion and his wife (Tara Fitzgerald) arrive at Lindsay's remote mountain eyrie, where they confront surly villagers, swaggering nude models and their own deepest inhibitions. Forced to extend their sojourn by a few days, the hapless minister not only finds his moral mission teased and trivialised but senses his marriage drifting away as his wife responds to the sirens' potently amorous call.

It's a film that has consolidated Duigan's standing in America as - in Variety's words - 'the reigning sensualist of Australian cinema'. Donnishly attired in a cords-and-Viyella combo and slouched on a chair in an upper chamber of the Groucho Club, the 44-year-old director looks reasonably content with the reputation, though he also realises how his film might affront the crabby puritans of political correctness. 'I was apprehensive, and still am,' he says with a measured, slightly professorial deliberation. 'Every now and then you get someone who has a knee-jerk reaction to it - the type who equates nudity with exploitation. It's what Norman Lindsay called 'wowserism'.' And what of the criticism that Sirens is a film for those who claim to read Playboy for the articles? Duigan smiles thinly. 'I make no apology for admiring and enjoying the female form. But I think the film offers much more than the beauty of a nude woman. It's an exploration of the realm of fantasy in life, and deals in - I hope - a humorous way with the tension between the Church's conservative teaching and a more unbridled enjoyment of the sensual life.'

His hope is not in vain - Sirens prefers sly social comedy to a naked assault (as it were) on the Church's repressive doctrines. Duigan attended a Presbyterian school in Australia, but he feels disinclined to wave any anti-clerical banners: 'I think there are Christians who would probably feel that the Church's more dogmatic assertions on sexuality can usefully be satirised.' It also helps that Campion is not an unsympathetic character. 'That's right. Hugh empathises with the character and takes the audience on a quite surprising arc - initially he's rather ridiculous, but later on is revealed as a vulnerable man who's deeply in love with his wife and anxious to understand the changes going on in her.

At one point he says to her: 'It's good to have some secrets' - and I think that's a persuasive argument.

If every relationship was utterly open and people felt under an obligation to reveal every aspect of their mental life then no relationship could really survive.'

Born in England, Duigan lived here till the age of 16 when his father, an RAF pilot, was seconded to the Malayan Air Force. The family subsequently moved to Australia. Following a degree in philosophy and history at Melbourne University, Duigan took up directing in the 1970s, specialising in documentaries and gritty urban dramas such as Winter of Our Dreams (1981), which starred the young Judy Davis. His artistic breakthrough came in a brace of semi-autobiographical films, The Year My Voice Broke (1987) and Flirting (1991), affectionate evocations of an Australian adolescence in the Sixties - and the very essence of bittersweet. Mapping the sentimental education of stammering, sensitive Danny Ambling (played with gawky grace by Noah Taylor), the films negotiated the perilous passage from innocence to experience with heartbreaking tenderness. Both films focus upon Danny's acute romantic yearning, fuelled by B-movies and the works of Jean-Paul Sartre. In The Year My Voice Broke, he experiments with hypnotism in an effort to woo Freya, an orphaned schoolfriend whose wild streak eventually bridles at the oppressiveness of their outback village.

In Flirting, he falls for Thandiwe, coltishly beautiful and wise beyond her years ('She folds her legs - in doing so I glimpse Xanadu'), and even braves a savage pummelling in the boxing ring to defend her honour. But it can't last; the bloom of passion is summarily nipped by the wintry disapproval of their boarding schools, which stand opposite one another like 'brooding volcanoes'. While Danny's background is quite different from his own, Duigan readily admits that, in terms of sensibility, he had much in common with his romantic narrator: 'I did use his character as a way of expressing my own feelings on a wide variety of issues. I was also naturally an outsider at school because I had an English accent, so I got persecuted quite comprehensively.' Wondrously alert to the nuances of adolescent curiosity and desire, Flirting and The Year My Voice Broke are among the cinema's finest and funniest testimonies of youth. Both are available on video.

But will Sirens be the one that crosses the street for Duigan? He's all too aware that the film's advance reputation could be its undoing. 'What does worry me is that if the nudity becomes the dominant way in which the film's perceived and the way it's marketed, then a lot of the potential audience will be discouraged from seeing it because they'll think it's trite or puerile.' He's quick to disavow any hint of opportunistic casting: 'I didn't set out to cast Elle MacPherson - I didn't expect her to be available or interested. It would have been foolish of me to cast her simply because she looks great. The role is fairly pivotal, so she got a detailed audition. In the end she proved ideal, but once the film gets under way it has to stand on its own merits.'

And what of his friend and tennis rival Hugh Grant? I would humbly offer that Sirens is by some distance the better film Grant stars in this summer. 'Curiously enough Four Weddings and a Funeral was filmed immediately after Sirens, but it has all rather descended on Hugh. I'm not surprised, in that I've always thought him an enormously gifted actor, but one didn't expect it to happen so suddenly . . . With all these young women following him around he's going to have to tone down his language when he double-faults.' There's another bit of casting the director had no qualms about - the part of an 'earnest minister' is played by John Duigan: 'I love acting, actually. I never intended to give it up - sometimes I'd just love to jump right in with the cast. I hope to return to acting some day . . . but with people like Hugh Grant around, what's the point?'

'Sirens' (15) opens on 22 July.

(Photographs omitted)