Home Video Hovel: Love Is the Devil, by Rita Cannon
When John Maybury made Love is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon in 1998, the British painter’s estate forbade him from using any of Bacon’s actual paintings in the film. Perhaps partly inspired by this limitation, Maybury found ways of evoking Bacon’s work in the visual style of the film, as well as the themes it explores. Bacon’s work featured warped and distorted versions of the human form shown in isolation, sometimes literally trapped in cages. The fictionalized version of Bacon, played in the film by Derek Jacobi, tells an interviewer that he is “optimistic about nothing.” Bacon’s grotesque aesthetic and fatalistic viewpoint are reflected in the film’s overriding sense of grim inevitability. But Maybury’s film also has a lack of emotional depth that its visual inventiveness can’t completely compensate for.
Love is the Devil chronicles the tumultuous affair between Bacon and George Dyer, a much younger small time crook played by Daniel Craig. They meet when Bacon catches George climbing through the older man’s skylight in an attempt to burglarize him. Bacon tells George that if he goes to bed with him, he can have anything in the apartment he wants. George accepts this bargain, and soon the two of them are an established couple.
George is a criminal from a rough background, but his circle of friends turn out to be tame compared to the the Soho artists Bacon hangs out with at a bar called the Colony Room. Every scene in the Colony Room is shot in a bleary, distorted way, the camera constantly wobbling around as it observes Bacon and his cohorts getting increasingly drunk and saying increasingly cruel and obscene things about each other and everyone they know. They’re especially dismissive of George, who they view as woefully unsophisticated and largely unworthy of their time. The heavy BDSM that Bacon and George engage in (with George as the dominant and Bacon as the submissive) becomes a sad mirror image of the way they interact outside of the bedroom, where Bacon spends a great deal of money on George, but expects him to bear the abuse of his friends and basically be subject to his every whim. (He also occasionally locks George out of the apartment so he can cheat on him with other men.) But George’s love for Bacon never falters, even as the younger man starts a downward spiral into depression and substance abuse.
The question of why George remains so in love with such an awful person goes largely unexplored. Bacon’s fascination with other people’s suffering is well-established, both in his work and his life. One scene has him waxing poetic over the tragic beauty of a bloody car crash, and it seems clear that for him, watching George destroy himself holds a similar appeal. But while Bacon explains his own inner state through dialogue and voice-over, George’s thoughts and feelings are mostly represented through nightmares and daydreams. The recurring image of a naked man covered in blood, teetering on the edge of what looks like a thin piece of wood, serves as a barometer of George’s misery throughout the story. To an extent, it makes sense that George’s feelings are presented this way. He isn’t an artist like Bacon, who has made a lifestyle out of examining, mythologizing, and presenting his own inner life for public consumption. He’s a blue collar roughneck who’s likely had to sublimate his feelings most of his life – especially the ones having to do with his attraction to men. But the imagery Maybury gives us becomes increasingly oblique and repetitive. It’s obvious that George isn’t happy, but it’s hard to glean anything more specific or meaningful than that.
Maybury’s film is visually stunning, and creates a riveting portrait of Francis Bacon as a perceptive artist and a callous monster. But as a portrait of a relationship, it’s unfortunately one-sided, resulting in a film that’s nowhere near as emotionally compelling as it could have been.