These two early films by Derek Jarman have their obvious charms and their frustrations but their idiosyncratic vision makes for strangely compulsive viewing.
Jarman is one of the great gay artists of the 20th century. In his writing, painting and filmmaking he pursues a sometimes angry, sometimes melancholy, sometimes ecstatic vision of gay desire. His paintings are abstract, his films experimental and his writing diaristic, what is important to him as an artist is the episodic revelation of individual lives and collective histories.
Sebastiane was his first attempt at feature filmmaking. Filmed in the Sardinian hills on a budget of Â£30,000 raised from donations by friends and wealthy benefactors it is at once a powerful auteur statement and a clumsy first film.
The film takes the legendary St Sebastian and exiles him amongst a group of isolated Roman soldiers. This makes for lots of semi-naked oiled-up bodies romping about the desert and some extraordinarily lyrical and hot sex scenes. Sebastian is put to death because he will not give in to the captain’s advances.
Jarman said late in life that although he recognised Sebastiane was a flawed film what pleased him most about it was its presentation of gay sex and friendship as a matter-of-fact, normalised part of these men’s lives.
This was the first of a series of films that Jarman was to make about martyred gay figures. His biographer Tony Peake claims that Jarman often fantasised about great gay figures from the past when he was having sex. Peake continues:
Sebastiane (and in time Caravaggio and Edward II) was an extension of such private fantasies into the public realm. In these films, Jarman’s concept of a gay lineage was given shimmering embodiment on screen.
His next film Jubilee is very different. It is a mad collage that switches between Elizabethan England to a post-apocalyptic punk England. It is here that Jarman begins to reveal his mature style. An early scene has Miss Amyl Nitrate dressed as a Wagner-esque diva in a Union Jack performing a falsetto, rocked-up and grunged-down Rule Britannia as the British entry in the Eurovision song contest. This gives a taste of the bizarre vision of this film and its witty visual style. It has little narrative but a wonderful collection of characters and scenes.