Oct 18, 2013
Even with his first feature-length film Sebastiane (1976), British queer auteur Derek Jarman (Jubilee, The Angelic Conversation), with some minor help from one-time director Paul Humfress, proved to be an aesthetically and thematically revolutionary filmmaker, as not only was the suavely sleazy cinematic work arguably the first British film to feature a positive portrayal of flagrant homosexuality and homoeroticism, but it was also the first film to be shot entirely in Latin (even if some of the dialogue is in ‘vulgar Latin’, which Jarman intentionally utilized, even going to a classics scholar for translation so words like “faggot” couple be properly translated) and the first British film to be released in England with English subtitles. Originally a production designer who worked for Ken Russell, even designing the iconically iconoclastic alpha Nunsploitation flick The Devils (1970), Jarman clearly learned from the best when it came to artful celluloid blasphemy and high-camp, taking the cryptic biblical homoeroticism of Cecil B. DeMille and stripping it bare and making it bloody via Sebastiane, a virtual softcore flick for fans of ‘religious’ Renaissance paintings. Only vaguely based on the life and times of the early Christian saint and martyr Saint Sebastian—a Roman Christian who is said to have been killed by Roman emperor Diocletian that has inspired countless gay artists, ranging from Japanese far-right novelist Yukio Mishima to German high-camp auteur Werner Schroeter—Sebastiane almost seems carelessly cliché in its gayness today in its depiction of what is undoubtedly one of the oldest and most artistically portrayed ‘gay icons.’ A sort of ‘depiction of a depiction’ in its focus on aesthetically readapting Renaissance paintings (subtextual homoerotic portrayals of Sebastian first appeared then) of Saint Sebastian as opposed to staying faithful to the story of the much sensualized and sensationalized saint, Sebastiane is a fiercely fetishistic celluloid fever dream of the superlatively sadomasochistic sort that portrays Christianity as an anti-gay/anti-life vice that prevents a closest queer from getting his fuck on and surviving the torture of a group of very horny soldiers. Beginning with Sebastian’s forced exile after protesting the execution of a Christian by Diocletian, Jarman’s Sebastiane almost completely abandons the traditional tale of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian and focus on the protagonist’s mentally and physically painful experiences with sexual repression after being sent to a military outpost where he is forced to fight and fuck, but refuses to do both as a frigid Christian who has promised himself to Jesus Christ and subconsciously desires death, hence his eventual martyrdom. A decidedly decadent yet classically inspired sexually morbid depiction of a ‘masochist for the Messiah’ and “Christian faggot” (as one of the Saint’s tormentors describes him), Sebastiane is a strikingly singular yet paradoxically derivative pomo homo ‘tribute’ to the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian that echoes the pastoral Mediterranean nude photos of Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden, the strangely nostalgic biblical atheism of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Matthew (1964), and the epic ancient Roman raunchiness of Fellini Satyricon (1969), the latter of which Jarman makes a thinly disguised tribute to.
As revealed in the introduction of Sebastiane, “IN THE SUMMER OF THE YEAR 303 THE EMPEROR DIOCLETIAN’S PALACE WAS RAVAGED BY A SERIES OF INEXPLICABLE FIRES. THE AGING EMPEROR BLAMED THE CHRISTIANS AND AS A RESULT UNLEASHED THE LAST GREAT PERSECUTION AGAINST THEM. DURING THE NEXT MONTHS THERE WERE MANY VICTIMS INCLUDING SEVERAL OF THE EMPEROR’S CLOSET FRIENDS.” Opening with a phallocentric pagan jubilee scene (which Jarman hoped wold be a “cruel cocktail party where the glitterati met oriental Rome”) at elderly pervert Diocletian’s humble abode on ‘Christmas Day’ in celebration of both the birth of the sun and the emperor’s 20 years on the throne featuring grotesque ‘beings’ sporting what appear to be penis piñatas, Sebastiane immediately establishes itself as a high-camp celluloid affair of the unwaveringly debauched sort. After Diocletian’s (Robert Medley) ‘court clown’ (or whatever he is) receives a couple gigantic cumshots to the face after a phallic circle jerk in tribute to the sun, the emperor has a rabid negro kill a blond beast of a Christian and his beloved ‘favorite’ Sebastiane (Leonardo Treviglio)—the Captain of the Palace Guard—cries out in hostile protest as a proud Christian crusader, thus resulting in his banishment to a desert military outpost populated by Christ-hating cocksuckers of the sexually ‘cannibalistic’ sort. Almost immediately upon arriving at the meager military camp, Sebastiane is singled out by the Severus (Barney James)—the blond and handsome Captain of the Guard—who does not aim to torture the newcomer simply because he is a Christian, but because he finds him absolutely arousing and will use any torturous method, no matter how deleterious and deadly, to get what he wants. Refusing to both fight and fuck as an involuntary member of the pagan Männerbünde, Sebastiane is beaten mercilessly and incessantly, especially by old school S&M fanatic Severus, whose fanatical obsession with the cowardly Christian falls somewhere in between lurid love and freaky fetishism. While Sebastiane confides in someone that he longs for his super severe tormentor Severus, stating, “I love him. He is beautiful. More beautiful than Adonis,” the passive Christian warrior cannot get off his self-cuckolding crutch for Christ, thereupon ultimately leading to his long and drawn out downfall. When Severus finally begs to be embraced by the rather repressed Christian, passionately spouting “Sebastiane, Love me,” Sebastiane makes the literally fatal mistake of laughing and replying with “you impotent fool” to his forbidden lover. As punishment for his anti-social behavior among proud sexual deviants with a preposterously proud sort of super masculine sexual prowess, Severus has Sebastiane tied to a stake where every soldier, including the Christian's only friend, Justin (Richard Warwick), is forced to unload arrows into the Christian coward, thus resulting in his death and eventual martyrdom, which he seemed to long for all along as a masochist for the messiah.
Despite being a revolutionary work in terms of ‘mainstreaming’ explicit gayness in cinema, Sebastiane was accepted, but with marked hostility, by some more anally retentive homo film critics, including Canadian commie cocksucker Thomas Waugh, who wrote regarding the work upon its release, “The film comes across as a second-rate skin flick all dressed in a costume that doesn’t fit…In fact, the only thing that distinguishes Sebastiane from the realm of soft core is the honesty of the latter. The film is so clumsy and unpersuasive in its pretensions to seriousness that it would probably work as camp were it not so tedious.” Of course, as he would later admit himself, Waugh could have not been more wrong, as Sebastiane is not only conspicuously campy in a cultivated sort of way that would make Jarman famous as an aberrosexual auteur to be reckoned with, but also makes playful references to its influences, including a reference to Cecil B. DeMille (“the chariot races of the famous Cecilli Mille”) and Federico Fellini (“a new man from the east…called Philistini…scoured all the brothels of Rome…and as far as freezing Britain…looking for pretty boys…for his production of Satyricon”). Of course, Sebastiane did not just have an influence on the cultured gay world, as the British goth/post-punk band Sex Gang Children released an EP entitled Sebastiane (1983) featuring cover art of the martyrdom scene from Jarman’s film. While I did not mind Brian Eno's anachronistic score for Sebastiane, I personally would not have minded seeing Sex Gang Children's song of the same name featured in the film.
Interestingly, Jarman spoke briefly about making a sequel of sorts to Sebastiane utilizing a more traditional approach to the martyrdom of Saint Sebastiane, but it is doubtful whether such a film would have worked and would have been anything aside from redundant considering what he accomplished with the original film. As Tony Peake revealed in the Jarman bio Derek Jarman: A Biography (2000), Jarman was the involuntary victim of ‘sexual torture’ while attending the Canford School in Dorset as a young boy, with the traumatic experience the filmmaker faced being described as follows in the book: “The incident in question involved him being cornered by a group of his contemporaries, held down, stripped, then brought to public orgasm by the stroking of a feather duster up and down the length of his legendary ‘snake’.” Undoubtedly, the childhood event Jarman ‘suffered’ that was described by Peake seems to be reenacted at feature-length for Sebastiane; a film that is a virtual collection of case studies in regard to the (sado)masochistic nature of homosexuality, but in a lavish ancient Roman period piece form. It should also be noted that as a child, Jarman, whose mother was ½ Jewish was described as a “wog” by his classmates, so he felt like a ‘double minority’ of sorts, which can be certainly said of the eponymous outcast protagonist of Sebastiane, who is a gay closested Christian among pernicious pagan wolves of the sexually virile sort. That being said, one could argue that Sebastiane is one of, if not the most, autobiographical films Jarman ever directed, at least in regard to his formative years. Undoubtedly, aside from possibly the impossible-to-find TV-movie The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian (1984) aka Le martyre de Saint Sébastien—a West German production directed by Czech auteur Petr Weigl (Lady Macbeth von Mzensk, A Village Romeo and Juliet) based on a play by proto-fascist poet-warrior and true Renaissance man Gabriele D'Annunzio that stars Pasolini protege Franco Citti (Accattone, The Godfather)—Jarman's Sebastiane is and will always be the ultimate and definitive sodomite St. Sebastiane flick.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 10:04 PM
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