Derek Jarman is one of those film makers. He’s a bit of an enfant terrible, especially in this, his first film. There are some deliberate nods to Fellini’s cinematic style, and the whole Italian art house oeuvre clearly had a strong influence on the direction this film took. It’s not got the same directorial voice and chaotic association-by-accident that Jarman develops later in films like The Last of England (1988), and nor does he quite reach the levels of ultraviolence he plays with in Jubilee (1977 – the film which really established Jarman’s cinematic identity, and one of the few films I’ve actually had to stop watching half way through). Of course, what most people reading will know Sebastiane for is not the historic importance of Jarman’s historic role in British cinema, but the porn.
For Sebastiane is, ultimately, a film about homosexual desire, BDSM and nude lads running about a desert without much more than a strategically placed posing pouch between them. And sometimes not even that. For Jarman to have chosen the story of St. Sebastian as a vehicle for these themes is not actually that surprising, given the numerous paintings of the saint supposedly in his death agonies, but in reality displaying off rather well-developed pecs and fair tousled hair. (There’s an interesting article over at the Independent on how Sebastian came to be a homoerotic icon, if you’re interested in the broader historical context.) All that positioning had happened well before Jarman came on the scene, so the choice makes cultural sense. For that matter, a lot of the film actually consists of reconstructions of famous classical paintings by the actors, including a beautiful shot echoing Narcissus looking at his own reflection in a seaside pool.
I don’t know a great deal about the state of cinema in the 1970s, so I want to limit my observations to some thoughts on what the choice of period and setting does to the relationships represented therein. The film begins with a riotous scene at the court of the emperor Diocletian, where Sebastiane commits the error which will see him exiled to the beachy army outpost where most of the film takes place. The two locations contrast strongly – where the fort embodies desert asceticism, the court is packed full of make up, outrageous costumes and general sybaritic living. (One of the characters, a sort-of narrator who also is transported from the court to the fort, has a false nose which looks very much like one adopted by somebody who has lost his original to syphilis, thus evoking the decadence of Regency England into the bargain.) The film opens with what I am going to refer to as a phallus dance, meant to represent the rising of the new year, choreographed and performed by Lindsay Kemp and a group of muscular young men with appendages reminiscent of the Greek comic phallus. The oversized nature of the false members, in combination with Kemp’s excessive make-up and the high theatricality of the scene, speaks of decadence and dissipation, very much in keeping with notions of imperial self-indulgence.
Sebastiane’s exile to the coastal fort, while hypothetically a punishment, seems to be rather a return to an idyllic natural purity, where such artifice disappears and people’s true natures are exposed. A homosexual relationship between two of the soldiers is treated sympathetically; Sebastiane’s own aching for the sadistic centurion is given the space for consummation in a way which circumvents traditional understandings of romantic or sexual relationships. The fort is an outer-space, a place distant from the ‘civilized’ world, an other-world where the men can be as they wish. There are a couple of shots of the soldiers playing ball games in the sea which replicate scenes from the Hampstead Heath Ponds, a popular gay cruising spot then and now, which add to this sense of a geographically-grounded safety.
What’s interesting here is that the space for gay activity is not the decadent imperial court, but an out of the way military fortification. The idyllic land gets moved out of the costumey Rome created by films like Fellini’s Satyricon and into this very other space that creates narrative justification for male nudity and comradeship that is conceptually bound up with the location rather than included as a signal of a decline and fall narrative. The choice of Rome rather than Greece is also worth flagging up – it’s normally the Greeks who get lumped with the burden of being the homosexually active ancient culture, possibly one of the reasons so few films tend to be set in ancient Greece (for more on which, see my colleague Gideon Nisbet’s book). So Jarman overturns not only the visions of antiquity created by his Italian influences, but also the popular conceptions of the ancient world created by social history. St. Sebastian may long have been a homoerotic icon through the medium of painting, but Jarman breaks new ground in repositioning him in an environment which nurtures and accepts gay relationships that look very similar to those of Jarman’s own time.