When I was growing up in the early 1990s my dad subscribed to the Movies Unlimited catalog, which I regularly perused; I usually stuck to the “Horror” section, but occasionally I would leaf through the rest of the book, where I eventually came upon a group of videos listed under the heading “Gay Interest,” one of which was Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane (1976). The capsule description of the film was accompanied by a thumbnail image of the video box cover (or maybe a version of the poster?) which showed the title character, more or less nude but in shadow and in profile, his hands bound over his head, his torso pierced with arrows. I had never even heard of St. Sebastian at the time, let alone Derek Jarman, but the image made an indelible impression on me; I never forgot it.
This week, some twenty-one years after I first came across that image, I saw Sebastiane for the first time. (I watched it on VHS, fittingly, though unfortunately the image on the front of the box bore no resemblance to the one I remember from the catalog.) It’s an unabashedly homoerotic take on the St. Sebastian myth in which the fourth-century persecution of Christians is made to parallel the persecution of homosexuals not only in the twentieth century but throughout Western history generally. The climactic scene, in which Sebastian (played by Leonard Treviglio) is tied to a stake and shot to death with arrows, is presented as an orgiastic gang rape; the Roman soldier commandeering the execution has been lusting after Sebastian the whole movie, to no avail, and Sebastian lets out an orgasmic sigh as the arrows pierce his body. Jarman stages it as a gay male version of Bernini’s St. Teresa; Sebastian is the martyr as beautiful-boy who exudes sexuality even (especially?) at the moment of his death.
There is something troubling, to be sure, about the eroticization of what is presented as an act of homophobic violence. More problematic still is Jarman’s representation of Sebastian as a real glutton for punishment; throughout the film, he encourages his torturers to keep punishing him, insisting that it brings him closer to God. One could no doubt imagine an utterly tasteless modern-day equivalent of such a scene—Matthew Shepard depicted as getting off on being tortured to death, for instance. But (and this will no doubt come as little surprise to my regular readers) I’m disinclined to condemn Sebastiane for inviting us to take erotic pleasure in what amounts to a series of extremely barbaric, and ultimately fatal, acts of gay-bashing. Jarman’s film complicates the relationship between Sebastian and his torturers, partly by revealing the torturers themselves to be governed by homosexual desire, partly by making Sebastian a somewhat willing participant in his own torture. The entire culture of homosexuality presented in this film—much of which is set in a kind of desert jail made up of a couple of Romans and a handful of Christian prisoners—is ruled by rituals of dominance and submission that are more complicitly enacted than they would initially seem to be. As is often the case with Jarman, who often uses historical subjects as a jumping-off point from which to explore issues of queerness from a more transhistorical perspective, he seems much more interested here in the story of St. Sebastian as a metaphor for how power is deployed between men of various sexual subject positions than in staging it realistically or conventionally. It becomes a languorously erotic role-playing fantasy.