The Exeter University Arts and Culture wing continued its Queer Screens programme this week (every Monday, 4:30, in Queens LT1). Each week, the series’ organizer Dr Joao Florencio, shows and introduces an LGBTQ+ related film, in an innovative season that from the outset is offering powerful works of cinema. The latest instalment was Sebastiane, by Paul Humfress and the great Derek Jarman, the latter of whom was an influential pioneer of New Queer Cinema. Jarman’s oeuvre rejects heteronormativity in all its forms, not least of in his debut feature, Sebastiane. Taking the life of St Sebastian, the directors’ detach the figure from his typical recognition as ‘that one Saint stuck full of arrows’, and turn his life into a fleshed-out (literally), pseudo-historical, Latin-language drama. The result is a remarkable film concerning martyrdom within a decadent and hypocritical society, and, as a necessary result, was deeply controversial on its release.
While the controversy surrounding Jarman’s depiction of homosexuality may have worn off somewhat in a more sexually liberated society, the second controversy, that of linguality, has, amusingly, not. Amusing in that neither of these controversies are those that should ever have become widespread; since when has shooting a film in the language applicable to setting and historical period been an issue? It would be no different than if Jarman had shot a film in contemporary France, with French characters, and had the actors speak in French. Latin, however, apparently receives a rough treatment from moviegoers, and accusations of pretention and snobbery abound criticism of the film. This is something that, no doubt, Jarman would have expected and relished in. He was always a filmmaker whose work bridged and entwined themes that most would see as being in juxtaposition. Homosexuality and Catholic martyrdom, in this case. Several years ago I visited his house, in Kent, and remember wandering through his carefully plotted garden surrounding his dark wooden Northern European style cottage, an aesthetic legacy to a life’s work. More striking than the intense isolation of the place was knowing that it was created, evidently meticulously, by a figure at the forefront of the riotous queer-punk movement. Derek Jarman’s work and life is one perforated by the conglomeration of the cerebral and the emotive, never bowing to popular taste.
Sebastiane is a film of extremes. Nothing is ever too crasse to depict, and nothing ever too beautiful. Perhaps this reflects the always-repeatable iconography of St Sebastian himself. Since the Renaissance, his is a character whose single image is forever dripping with sadistic fetish. From Guido Reni to Egon Schiele, the Saint as a symbol of male homosexual defiance is at once erotic and disturbing. Even after a base Freudian analysis of an arrow-perforated body, there still remains to be considered the necessary aggression the viewer must align themselves with when considering a single-perspective painting.
Perhaps this is why, with the birth of modernism and increase in artistic challenges to sexual repression (and, indeed, single-perspective art), Sebastian was adopted more often in literary texts, so as to expand and have the audience sympathise further with the character, rather than directly objectifying him as a sexual image. In line with Oscar Wilde, Tennessee Williams and Thomas Mann, this is exactly what Jarman is doing. Not that the defiance of the Saint is lost in this approach. As the avant-garde writer Yukio Mishima wrote in a prose poem: “His was not a fate to be pitied. In no way was it a pitiable fate. Rather was it proud and tragic, a fate that might even be called shining.” Mishima literally modelled himself on the Saint, such was his devotion, in a photograph he had taken of himself. This was shortly before his own ritual self-disembowelment…
Jarman and Humfress, too, are in awe of this martyrdom. The abuse the central character receives during the film, while distanced from reality, always feels personal and applicable to the confused homophobia of the twentieth century and indeed of today. Derek Jarman became, similarly to Mishima (although less narcissistic and posturing), somewhat of a self-made martyr. His film Blue is a testament to his reflective self and its finality. Sebastiane, then, becomes a personal premonition. It is the ideological triumph of a human being, pitted against impossible odds, in a cruel and unforgiving society.
– Ben Britton