For our third discussion, James and I move both forward and backwards in time. We're five years on from last take, Sunday Bloody Sunday, but Derek Jarman's feature debut is set thousands of years back in Ancient Rome. There's something interesting about Sebastiane, and it's not just his penis...
I want to take this down to the most basic reading I made of the film at the end. If we read the entire film as queer, which seems necessary, then Sebastian, despite his refusal of Severus' advances, is gay too. Only what his rhapsodic words to Justin demonstrate is the purity of his gayness - the separation of love from lust. "You think your drunken lust compares to the love of God?" he asks Severus boldly, even in the face of potential rape. Severus' hazy slow motion views of Anthony and Adrian's wet make it clear that he seems the men around him purely in terms of the bodily, carnal involvement, but I think what the actors do, both in those scenes and later when Adrian is leaning against Anthony, is suggest the genuine affection and coupledom between the pair. Lust is part of love, but Severus' separation from the men around him causes him to objectify and see sex as the only possible connection to them. He's also, along with Max (who momentarily acts as our narrator), the old guard, the remnants of the brutal Roman society they've left behind. One of the most amusing moments is where the camera's so disinterested in Max's lament over how the glory of the past is receding that it lingers heavily over another man shaving his body.
It's easy to criticise the film for baring so much flesh and filming certain scenes in such an erotic way they're straight (no pun intended) out of porn films, but Jarman and Humfress don't use these techniques so basically. The constant appearance of dicks becomes normalised; even comedic when they all try to outdo each other's fake endowments. Especially late in the film, the degree of nudity for the various men seems to reflect social status. Note how emphasised Adrian is in the final scene and how he has to be forced to shoot Sebastian, because he is the submissive partner of Anthony, and has been teased earlier about being a virgin, the younger member of the group at the prey of his superiors. His posing in the final scene is erotic, but it's also so posed that it reflects the kind of emotionless decorative qualities of male flesh that we see in the ornate opening, with a motionless man painted gold and muted.
The film's natural equivocation of sex and violence (swords = penises, you know the drill - and Sebastian doesn't want to have sex so he refuses to clean those swords!) create the natural solution to Severus' sexual frustration - if he can't sex Sebastian, he can reach satisfaction by piercing Sebastian with an arrow. In fact, the involvement of all of the men in this final act is a perverse reflection of the bukkake climax to the dancing scene that opens the film. And now, James, you have carte blanche, because I've just said bukkake. Twice.
James: Maybe we can start a drinking game. Every time we say "bukkake" in this post, the readers have to take a drink. It's really the inevitable continuation of the Bridesmaids girls' "SCORSESE!".
Sebastiane was my first Jarman film. All I really knew about him was that he made queer avant-garde films and that Tilda Swinton was his muse. So, I was actually surprised to discover that Sebastiane wasn't as "out there" as I had feared. Then again, what does it say about me that I did not find a film with a barebones plot and shot entirely in Latin "out there"? Perhaps it was the gratuitous amounts of male flesh on display, unashamed of just how gratuitous it was. Like you mentioned, many scenes were shot like they were straight out of a porno. Perhaps, though, Jarman and Humfress weren't "borrowing" so much as they were influencing that genre. I'm no expert in 70's porn, but a few of these scenes, particularly the one where the guys, nearly naked and wet, start throwing around a ball on the beach, felt completely modern to me: "Oh, look at these strapping young dudes, just tossing a ball around like the hot, macho jocks they are. Hot, macho jocks who are going to fuck each other, that is."
I like what you have to say about the film's "love vs. lust" angle, which I must admit completely escaped me when I was considering Sebastiane's queerness. I was more focused on the relationship between Sebastian's homosexuality and his Christianity. There's no doubt that Sebastian was attracted to Severus--he openly admits it--yet I never quite saw it as something he was interested in experiencing or exploring. In fact, he seems oddly ashamed of it. Jarman and Humfress are not exactly subtle in making Sebastian a Christ-like figure. Over the course of the film, he is brutally beaten for refusing the follow Severus' orders, sexual and otherwise. Instead of getting the punishment over as soon as possible, however, Sebastian refuses to give in, accepting beatings far beyond what his body can handle. It's almost as if he feels he deserves these punishments for the sins he has committed, namely his homosexual desires (It's no coincidence that he mentions his desire for Severus during one of these cruel punishments). The purity of Sebastian's Christianity contrasts strongly with the hedonistic Romans who surround him. He won't allow himself to give into Severus' lust, but he also still has some feelings for him. Besides, as you said, the films shows that love and lust go hand in hand, but neither Sebastian or Severus can see this. In a way, the film's finale is the only way it can end: Sebastian must die for the sins of not only himself but of the soldiers around him.
Let me pose a question that has been nagging at me since I watched this film: Why is it that the movies associate Ancient Rome with male homoeroticism and homosexuality? There are countless examples, no doubt, but perhaps the most glaring choice is Fellini's Satyricon, released just a few years before Sebastiane. That film was an epic about one young Roman's love/lust for an even younger male (a twink, to be more specific) and the journey he takes to be with him. It's a surprisingly brazen film, both for the time it was made and even among Fellini's filmography, but I think it got away with it precisely because of its historical context. Even with last year's The Eagle, many spectators were hoping Tatum and Bell got it on because that's what we expect from Ancient Roman epics. Why is it that Ancient Rome was, and, to an extent, still is a safe haven in films for homosexuality, or at the very least homoeroticism, to flourish? In other words, why is it we got to see bukkake in Sebastiane without UK censors burning every last print of this movie? Is it because of the well-recorded decadence of the empire, particularly during its final years? And why is Rome used more often than Ancient Greece, where homosexuality and pederasty was widely reported and approved?
|Max (Neil Kennedy) momentarily acts as conduit|
I do remember as it began thinking, "this is the weirdest film I have ever seen" - and then ten minutes later, it felt almost ordinary. I think it takes a certain brazen attitude to pull that off, as you suggested - even though it does use the nudity for titillation, it contextualises that within an environment where the titillating elements are always on display, and thus, normalised. The exotic is sucked out of the nude bodies because we see them doing everything naked. And so those scenes you describe are not necessarily pornographic, simply the day-to-day life. You're right, though, since '70s porn (I am honestly not lying when I say I've been reading academic pieces on pornography just hours before I write this - it's part of my module on Exploitation Cinema) was driven by actual narratives, as opposed to the more direct clips we get today. And scenes like those ball games definitely reflect the infamous volleyball scenes in earlier films about nudist camps. How developed pornography was in terms of the slow-motion erotica Jarman and Humfress shot, I couldn't tell you, but I think it's worth noting that they aren't strictly sex scenes - what exuded powerfully from those scenes for me was the good humour of the two men. Porn generally reduces sex to a physical connection and those scenes felt more emotionally driven.
|Adrian (Ken Hicks) and Anthony (Janusz Romanov) embrace|
James: Does the film position Justin as the idealized love counterpoint to Severus' lust? I never thought of it before, but now that you mention it, the idea makes sense to me. As you said, Justin is clearly in love with Sebastian. However, we never get the feeling that Justin is lusting after him. He's the pure love that Sebastian seeks, yet he's too racked with guilt over his "unnatural" feelings for Severus to even notice. To put it in terms more people will understand, Justin is the Ducky to Sebastian's Molly Ringwald: he'll always be there and may always have feelings for him, but Sebastian / Molly Ringwald is too caught up in their own little world to take him seriously as a romantic suitor.
|Sebastian (Leonardo Treviglio) lost in his own little world|
David: I don't know that it's that positive - after all, this is a society where refused advances lead to someone being crucified and pummelled with arrows. If the film shows a gay society flourishing, it also shows that these are still men - and men have the tendency to deal with their problems with violence. I think the film does still delineate between the butcher men and the more effeminate ones - Sebastian being feminised through the torture he undergoes. This is still a world governed by heteronormative, gendered systems, only mapped onto a society where everyone has a penis. You are right, though - the open affection does seem like a moment of simple, loving interaction between two equals. It's definitely the most content and positive depiction of homosexuality we've seen so far.
Next take: My Beautiful Laundrette