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  • 18
  • Biography, Drama
  • 1998
  • 90 mins

Love Is The Devil: Study For A Portrait Of Francis Bacon

Love Is The Devil: Study For A Portrait Of Francis Bacon

Synopsis

In John Maybury's debut feature, the life, love and art of Jacobi's Francis Bacon reflect each other in a compellingly grotesque triptych

About

Seeing an artist at work can literally be like watching paint dry, so it was something of an unexpected boon when the Bacon estate refused John Maybury permission to depict any of Francis Bacon's actual paintings in his debut feature. In the absence of Bacon's own artworks, the one-time video director has been forced to turn to more cinematic modes of expression, and the result is a reeling, hallucinogenic trawl through the gutter of the creative process. Love Is The Devil is a celluloid portrait every bit as grimly disturbing as anything that Bacon himself produced, and is far too darkly imaginative to be tarred with the 'biopic' brush, even if it is based loosely on real events in the life of Britain's greatest post-war painter.

The film outlines the tempestuous relationship between Bacon (Jacobi) and George Dyer (Craig) from its beginning in 1964 to its end in 1971. Dyer was an otherwise little known burglar who fell into Bacon's life when he accidentally plummeted through a skylight into the artist's studio. The Faustian pact that Bacon offers ("Take your clothes off, come to bed, and you can have whatever you want") proves irresistible, and Dyer is quickly installed as Bacon's lover and muse, catering to the artist's ideals of rough-hewn beauty, as well as to his submissive sexual proclivities.

Yet the East End criminals and hardmen whose company Dyer used to keep were far less viciously predatory than the boozy freakshow of Soho artists, critics and hangers-on who frequent Bacon's favourite haunt the Colony Room ("the concentration of camp"), presided over by foul-mouthed lesbian Muriel Belcher (Tilda Swinton), unrecognisable in prosthetic dentures), and none of them is crueller than Bacon himself. As the misfit Dyer becomes afflicted by ever increasing neediness and neurosis, Bacon only aggravates his partner's slow but terminal descent, creating in him the perfect model for his own ideas of nihilism, decadence and alienation.

Without ever showing the real thing, the whole of Love Is The Devil has been shot to resemble a Bacon painting. Fantasies and nightmares weave their way into the narrative fabric, and characters' faces are disfigured through beer glasses and bottles, or inverted in the reflective surface of an ashtray.

So distorted is the vision that Maybury and his cinematographer Mathieson have created, and so indistinguishable is their reality from its artful imitation, that in one episode Dyer is seen drunkenly urinating on what is merely a picture of a toilet, while in another a 'genuine' hotel bathroom is presented within a stylised wooden frame instead of real walls. Even Bacon's beloved triptych form finds its match in the triple-framed mirror or the three-screened television that features in the film. This is a highly aestheticised world of the imagination, where colours blur and heave, as Bacon violently flings red onto a canvas, or a boxer's blood spurts over his enraptured face, or the red wine from Dyer's bottle spills onto the rain-swept pavement. Maybury, like Bacon, locates the beautiful in the ugly; and this jarring blend of eroticism and morbidity is underscored by the discordancy of Ryuichi Sakamoto's soundtrack.

Dyer suffers from all manner of compulsions and addictions - alcohol, heroin, pills - but more than anything else, his real downfall is an inability to give up his love for Bacon, so that no matter how harshly he is treated, he just keeps coming back for more. This doomed figure, whose very name suggests a twin destiny as both canvas and corpse, is portrayed by Craig with rough-edged vulnerability, as a would-be sadist reduced to the role of masochist in a tragedy directed by Bacon himself. Jacobi is a revelation as the artist - a contradictory monster of a man, demolishing in Dyer only what he despises in himself, and in the end, like some modern Dorian Gray, left to contemplate what have all along been self-portraits, whose every diseased feature is really just his own, reflected in a warped mirror.

The final sequence, in which he sits alone in his studio, imagining the applause of his fawning coterie even as he has destroyed the only person who truly loved him, represents as haunting an image of an artist's self-imposed isolation as is ever likely to be seen.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Adrian Scarborough, Tilda Swinton, Anne Lambton, Karl Johnson, Derek Jacobi, Daniel Craig, Annabel Brooks
  • Director: John Maybury
  • Screen Writer: John Maybury
  • Writer (Book): Daniel Farson
  • Producer: Chiara Menage
  • Photographer: John Mathieson
  • Composer: Ryuichi Sakamoto

In a nutshell

It may not always be a pretty sight, but, like a bloody car wreck, this portrait of a self-destructive artist makes for riveting viewing. Strongly recommended.

by Anton Bitel

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