Writer-director John Maybury’s feature debut, Love is the Devil, is subtitled Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon, which would seem pretentious if it weren’t such an honest admission of the film’s limitations. Though imaginatively photographed and wonderfully acted, it offers only sketchy glimpses of a dauntingly complex personality. There are depths to the film’s subject that it knows it can’t plunge and so it settles for a distractingly aggressive shallowness.
Francis Bacon has been called the greatest painter of the 20th century, an assessment sired as much by the age of hype as by his actual accomplishments, which were extraordinary. At a time when abstract expressionism still reigned, Bacon took for his subject the human form, often postured in extremis, tortured, neglected or made gross by the sickened spirit it contained.
The British Bacon was also gay, alcoholic and dreadfully unhappy, which is putting it politely -- as played by Derek Jacobi, he’s a hideous little queer with a spiteful tongue, constantly pouring booze down a deep well of self-absorption. The film covers the period during the ’60s and early ’70s when the well-established painter’s central relationship was with the unfortunate George Dyer (Daniel Craig), a petty thief who one night broke into Bacon’s flat and ended up being, for many years, his lover.
Bacon introduces Dyer, and us, to his acquaintances at the Colony Club, a coterie of hangers-on and fellow artistic drunks, straight and gay, though the air is thick with bitchery and brittle bon mots -- it’s "a concentration of camp," Bacon tells his new lover on their first visit. The painter seems almost happy for a period, but the film takes an ironic turn when it becomes apparent that the seemingly simple Dyer is actually the more neurotic of the two, given to dreams of a bloodied man crouching at the edge of a diving board, punctuated by close-ups of undulating viscera. Soon, and with increasing impatience, Bacon is coaxing Dyer away from suicidal ledges.
Maybury wasn’t permitted to use any of Bacon’s paintings in the film and so has opted to shoot certain sequences -- mainly those at the Colony Club -- in a style that is distinctly Bacon-esque, with images warped and people’s faces appearing to be caught in mid-meltdown. It’s effective as far as it goes, but it looks, and feels, as does Jacobi’s expert performance, like a decent accomplishment -- like a good, if uninspired, piece of work. Francis Bacon, meanwhile, remains as opaque as ever, elusive and unsettling.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].