Bright Lights Film Journal

Devoutly Elusive: <em>Love Is the Devil</em> (John Maybury, 1998)

Timid top George Dyer meets pushy bottom Francis Bacon, with art and death the inevitable result

In a typical moment in this artful biopic of Francis Bacon, the ultra-queer painter strolls into his favorite pub, eyes the motley crowd of queens and fag hags, and grandly toasts, “Welcome to the concentration of camp!” Love Is the Devil is filled with such sentiments, apparently trawled from Bacon’s own words, which like his personality could be vicious or inspiring and sometimes both at once.

Bacon was a charismatic figure in real life, but at first glance too enigmatic and — like his paintings — too downright creepy to be an obvious choice for the subject of a feature film. Audiences who have trouble grasping anything more complex than cars exploding and meteors hurtling to Earth will surely bristle at this film’s bald treatment of an often unlikeable British aesthete who happily bares his ass for the brutal ministrations of an army of rough trade. Then there are those pesky time-shifts, which force the viewer to ponder precisely where and when the action is occurring, not to mention sudden interpolations of gruesome images from the unconscious of Bacon’s psycho boyfriend George. Those who don’t know Bacon’s work will be puzzled by the film’s playful, subtle recreations of it in the staging of scenes — an ingenious response to the Bacon estate’s refusal to cooperate with the project. The fact that Love Is the Devil is as good as it is, which is to say good indeed, is a testament to director John Maybury’s skill in manipulating this tricky material and Derek Jacobi’s brilliance in interpreting the role of Bacon.

Wisely, the film doesn’t follow the rules of the standard artistic bio; it ignores the birth, youth, and death of Bacon in favor of a steamy seven-year chunk of his life, from the night in 1964 when he takes up with petty criminal and working-class hunk George Dyer to their divorce by suicide in 1971. Their meeting happens when the painter discovers his future husband preparing to rob him and instead of calling the police invites him in for a night of s&m thrills. Jacobi plays Bacon as a reluctant Svengali, hiring George as model, fucktoy, and butch Boy Friday, succumbing nightly to George’s assaults, but angry and bored the next day at how needy he is. (George establishes decisively the mirror image of the “pushy bottom” in his “timid top.”) Daniel Craig plays the character as a desperate, demented Trilby whose immersion in a scene he has no real part in drives him to abusive rent boys, drink, and drugs.

Director Maybury, an artist himself who worked with Derek Jarman, lures the viewer into the interior world of his subject. Bacon’s innovative portrayals of the human figure as a screaming shell of flesh and blood are the obvious inspiration for much of what we see — strobe-lit, blood-drenched images, distorted faces, autopsy photos, a mysterious naked gymnast always perched on the edge of a fall. When Bacon attends a boxing match, he practically has an orgasm when a spray of blood from the ring splashes his face. The painter’s inner world, it seems, is as grim as the paintings, and he’s the first to acknowledge it in dialogue that has the force of aphorism: “Sometimes a man’s shadow is more in the room than he is,” and a phrase that exactly mimics the paintings, “Who if I cry out would hear me?” Of course, George brings it all back to earth with his pitiful plaint about Bacon and his brittle friends: “These people I’m running with … they’d push me under a bus as soon as look at me!”

When Bacon isn’t getting solace from George’s teary-eyed buttfucking or a beating by a blonde waiter who looks like a walking Nazi recruitment poster, he’s ensconced in the airless space of the local gay bar. This is the arena whose nervous energy he seems to be most at home in. Churlish fag hag Muriel (Tilda Swinton looking inexplicably like her mouth was mauled by a grizzly) reassuringly calls him “daughter”; she in turn is dished by another, disfavored queen who tells her, “I’ll talk to you after you have a shave.” All the while Bacon pontificates, regales, and insults this jaded coterie, raising even their drawn-on eyebrows when he gives a toast worthy of James Joyce: “Champagne for my real friends; real pain for my sham friends.”

Director Maybury took a welcome risk in portraying Bacon’s “lifestyle” without apology, with numerous close-up scenes of s&m lust and a lingering full-frontal nude scene for George (in a bathtub). (See Adrian Lyne’s atrocious Lolita and the gay-sanitized 54 for contrasting examples of films that are sex-apologetic.) There’s no attempt to make Bacon lovable — he wasn’t in real life — but the film does make him understandable, to the extent possible with a subject so devoutly elusive.