Love Is the Devil (1998)
In a more innocent time, painter biopics were, more often than not, sentimentalized fictions trading on the fame of the subject (van Gogh in Lust for Life, Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy). More recently, some filmmakers have courageously (and with varying degrees of success) used film to explore the lives of painters with intellectual honesty and their work with aesthetic understanding and in filmic terms (van Gogh - again - in Vincent and Theo, Caravaggio).
Now we have a film that succeeds brilliantly on both counts. Love is the Devil is a riveting and disquieting portrait of a riveting and disquieting painter, Francis Bacon. Bacon's place in the pantheon of twentieth century painters is now firmly established, but at a time when anything other than abstract expressionism was ignored by the critical establishment, he went about developing a highly individual style of figurative painting, paintings which are often difficult to look at - large, dark, distorted figures in which the pain suffered by the subject is expressed by the entire composition, often large canvases, as well as twisted facial expressions, grotesqueries on the outside reflecting anguish within.
Bacon was a homosexual, a masochist sexually, but, it seems, much the emotional sadist out of bed. The film covers the period in his life from the dramatic entrance of George Dyer, the younger working class man who became his lover, until Dyer's suicide seven years later. Their relationship is explored in some depth here, with neither condescension nor simplification. Though Bacon comes out of it looking selfish and cruelly insensitive, the art that he made during those years is a sensational testament to the profound emotional connection that he and Dyer shared, for all that intellectually and socially they were worlds apart.
Writer-director John Maybury uses the camera to interpret the images that were Bacon's world, not trying to recreate the paintings, none of which are shown in the film, but to elicit the visual experience and translate it into film pictures that, in turn, suggest what Bacon was doing on canvas.
In some scenes, for example, characters are heavily made up to distort their faces, in one case almost with the look of advanced Bell's palsy. The camera, then, might show us that face through the glass of a light bulb or reflected in a mirror, or in broken glass, or in extreme closeup - all techniques used at one point or another in the film, all evincing the look and feel of Bacon painting without trying to be Bacon paintings. Bacon painted a number of triptychs, and Maybury cues us in with three paneled mirrors. Maybury has looked at Bacon's paintings and seen them well; his filmic interpretation is inspired without being derivative. The soundtrack of electronic, dissonant music by Ryuichi Sakamoto provides an excellent aural complement.
We get some sequences of Bacon at work, not only using brush and palette knife, laying on the thick impasto, but even using his hands right on the paint and canvas. In the course of the story we get interesting moments that help us understand, if not why Bacon felt the way he felt, at least how. He and George attend a boxing match, and blood from the broken face of one of the fighters literally splatters Bacon's face. "Francis is in a state of grace in the presence of violence," says one of his friends. Most of all, George's recurring nightmares of death and the inner demons that haunt him even as he becomes more deeply dependent on alcohol and drugs are the grist for Bacon's aesthetic mill, the stuff which he converts into paint on canvas with power and impact and its own perverse beauty.
The lead performances, Derek Jacobi as Bacon and Daniel Craig as Dyer, could not be better, the stuff for which Academy awards are won in films less controversial, more mainstream. Regardless, in terms of film art, all participants are top notch. They have made a film that will be the benchmark of the genre for years to come.
- Arthur Lazere