– The complex connection between lived experience and the written word is at the heart of Mikko Makela’s London-set sophomore feature

Review: Sebastian

Ruaridh Mollica (left) in Sebastian

What could be worse for an artist: a lack of imagination, or of experience? The young protagonist at the centre of Sebastian [+see also:
interview: Mikko Mäkelä
film profile
]
, the sophomore feature from London-based Finnish-British director Mikko Makela which premiered in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, seems to suffer from both. We are first introduced to him (Ruaridh Mollica) while he is meeting with an older man who pays him for sex; soon after, we find him in the wildly unerotic context of a meeting at a literary magazine. Max is a writer working on his first novel, which is centred on a sex worker / escort named Sebastian — only no one knows that all the situations described in the book are directly drawn from his own experience rather than from interviews. He isn’t a sex worker writing a book, but a writer researching sex work in order to write a book. 

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This premise may suggest that Sebastian would build into a cynical critique of current trends in publishing, namely a focus on first-person tales of somewhat unusual, ideally traumatic personal experience, and a demand for authors’ complete self-disclosure. But while the film does paint, with a few well-chosen brushstrokes, a relatively accurate portrait of the London literary scene (shoutout to Granta and the LRB podcast), it is more interested in Max himself and his own convictions about what he must do to succeed. 

The very precise dialogue and slow delivery from the cast, all embracing a rather arch and stilted acting style, initially seem to place the film at some remove from realism, in a more stylised and tense world than our own where Max’s project would simply be a smart and pragmatic choice. But this cold reality quickly begins to feel oversimplified and uninteresting, and it is a relief when Max’s plan begins to crack. After his publisher complains about the repetitive nature of Sebastian’s adventures, Max decides to take bigger risks with his sexual encounters, but the drugs he takes to stay awake during an all-night orgy make him miss an important meeting the next day, as well as the rare chance to interview none other than Bret Easton Ellis. The American Psycho author famously likes to tease readers and critics with the suggestion that the tales of debauchery and violence he describes so vividly in his novels might be taken directly from his own experience — video and audio clips of Ellis discussing his work punctuate much of the film as Max prepares for his interview. These snippets of course reflect on the young writer’s own method, but besides bringing to the fore the duality of experience vs. imagination, this seems like an odd juxtaposition to make. Excerpts from Max’s novel suggest it is little more than a series of descriptions of what he has done with various clients, documentary-like reports from a secret underground scene. By contrast, and although much is made of the plots and events in Ellis’ novels, his biggest legacy is probably his style: banal language is mixed with an onslaught of extremely detailed descriptions, transcribing a tortured state of extreme sensitivity and disconnect, a permanent conflict between the search for something true and for a balm to numb reality’s sting. 

There are suggestions that Makela aims to depict a similar duality in his own protagonist, and the contrast between very physical sex scenes and shots of Max silently typing up his reports on his laptop afterwards most clearly represents that clash. As the young writer eventually faces the consequences of his deception and comes close to losing everything, we catch glimpses of the troubled human being behind the calculating writer. But while the film expertly builds suspense around Max’s project getting increasingly out of hand, it is difficult to feel moved by his story because we can easily imagine how it will end. 

When we leave Max at the end of the film, he is triumphant: his career is saved, and he no longer has to lie to anybody. But Makela seems uninterested in the artistic implications of this development. Going forward, and unlike Ellis’, it seems Max’s writing career won’t require him to have any imagination at all. Where so many stories of literary fraud centre on authors who lie and cheat, Sebastian makes the point (perhaps inadvertently) that honesty isn’t just the best policy, it is also the best commodity. 

Sebastian was produced by Bêtes Sauvages (UK), Helsinki Filmi Oy (Finland), Barry Crerar (UK), and Lemming Film (the Netherlands).

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