Art or guilty pleasure? Derek Jarman’s ‘Sebastiane’ (1976)

The best thing about Derek Jarman’s debut, which he co-directed and co-wrote with Paul Humfress, is the arresting opening image: a tight close-up of a leering mime, his head shaven, his face heavily powdered and elaborately, strikingly made up for full Ziggy Stardust androgyny, and his eyes rolling back into his head as if he’s transported by some unknown ecstasies that less fabulous creatures can only guess at.

The camera pulls out to show us that this capering fellow is the lead mime in a troupe performing at a Roman banquet-orgy. The imperial decadence is heavily overlaid with a coating of glam-rock decadence, though — the time period is ostensibly ancient Rome, but there’s no mistaking an aesthetic that hails from early- to mid-‘70s London.

The lead mime and his fellow dancers act out an all-male group grope, much to the tittering amusement of the sophistos gathered around. The whole scene is entertainingly lurid, and notably well art-directed. The look is lavish but cheap; clearly not a big-budget production, it gives the sense of having been dependent on borrowed props, everyone pitching in for free, etc. The scene is reminiscent of moments in Warhol or early Fassbinder (two filmmakers of whom Jarman was undoubtedly aware), in that the lack of money actually helps our suspension of disbelief — it feels like we’re witnessing an underground scene that the camera just happened to record, rather than something staged.

After that first five minutes, Sebastiane regrettably loses any sense of play and becomes solemn and portentous. The action moves to a remote desert outpost on the outskirts of the Roman Empire, where Sebastian (Leonardo Treviglio) has been banished after falling from the Emperor’s favor. Out here in the windswept garrison of Spaghetti Western Land, Sebastian and his ruthless commander Severus (Barney James) act out a nearly wordless version of Billy Budd, Severus’ unrequited lust for Sebastian making him increasingly violent, and Sebastian’s chaste Christian piety dooming him to iconic martyr status.

Sebastian is the patron saint of homosexuals, and Sebastiane was no doubt defiant and groundbreaking in 1976 for being so unabashedly homoerotic. (The same quality would presumably have also limited its distribution to a very few venues in major cities.) Jarman’s arty approach to storytelling and forceful (though not hardcore) depiction of gay sex may well have registered as de facto avant-garde at the time. Even Brian Eno’s shimmery old-school synth score probably sounded like an otherworldly revelation.

Thirty-plus years later, it’s a different story. It’s obvious within minutes that Jarman and Humfress are more interested in staging erotically charged tableaux than developing a narrative. Super-skinny in that distinctly 1970s way, Sebastian and his fellow soldiers/unshaven male models pose and roll around wearing little more than capes and boots, and then pose some more.

Sebastiane offers no insights into the religious conviction that sustains a man in the face of death, or the l’amour fou that ultimately drives Severus to crucify Sebastian. I wouldn’t go so far as to describe Sebastiane as being “like a gay entry in the Emmanuelle series,” as one Netflix member does (another calls it “a guilty pleasure posing as art”), but if you aren’t engaged by all the wiry muscle on display, the movie has little to offer besides its striking cinematography and the curiosity factor of Eno’s score. The biggest drawback is Sebastian himself: actor Leonardo Treviglio has one sour expression, and there’s nothing beatific or compelling about him.

And then there’s the movie’s crushing humorlessness. The atmosphere is solemn and exalted, the sex scenes no romp but presented with such overblown intensity that the seriousness starts to feel arid after awhile, or maybe just silly.

A further drawback is the curious framing of the DVD image: In shot after shot, the actors’ heads are cut off at the top of the frame. I can’t believe a filmmaker as visually acute as Jarman would’ve composed his shots that way. Was this badly cropped print really the only one available for the DVD transfer?

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It’s admirable that Jarman and Humfress were able to put Sebastiane together for a reported $45,000 (about $179,000 today), but the film bogs down in its own pretensions. What really hurts it for me is the memory of Claire Denis’ Beau Travail (1999), which like Sebastiane retells the story of Billy Budd (this time transposing it to the French Foreign Legion), and also uses elliptical storytelling, with relatively little dialogue. But Beau Travail is poetic and haunting, a coolly beautiful reverie captured on film, whereas too much of Sebastiane all but defies the viewer not to think of Monty Python.

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