A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS AN OLD QUEEN
Bedrooms and Hallways (First Run Features, 1999)
Love is the Devil (Strand Releasing, 1998)
Director John Maybury recently enjoyed mainstream success with the surreal thriller, The Jacket. Back in 1998, however, he was testing the waters of independent queer cinema with Love is the Devil, a subversive bio-pic of British artist Francis Bacon.
Like many post-WWII artists, Bacon's collected work lays bare the horrors of the modern world. He was dubbed "the greatest English painter since Turner." Best known perhaps for his "Screaming Pope" series, modeled on a famous canvas by Valesquez, Bacon's finest work deconstructed the human figure. Spawned from his brush, his male nudes are often grotesquely distorted, almost eviscerated. A ghostly canvas, shown above, of two wrestlers is homoerotic with an undercurrent of violence.
Openly gay, Bacon was one of the great iconoclasts of the 1960s. He lorded over a pack of drunks and bohemians at the Colony tavern in Soho, buying drinks one minute, insulting his friends the next. Bacon had a taste for S&M sex with rough trade, usually taking the role of the masochist. He was in turns generous and abusive, driving one lover to commit suicide. Love is the Devil focuses on his stormy relationship with that man - George Dyer, a common thief who became his consort and his most frequent model.
The film opens with Dyer literally falling through a skylight into Bacon's studio - a chaotic mess that is accurately re-created onscreen. The walls are covered with splotches of paint, the floor littered with X-rays, medical pictures and crime photos. Bacon finds the clumsy burglar, attired in leather, and tells him to take off his clothes and come to bed and then he can help himself to whatever he wants. Dyer becomes the trick who won't leave. Bacon takes him under his wing, buying him expensive clothes and acting as his mentor. "Her ladyship might be going steady" declares one of the denizens at the Colony. Bacon introduces them to his new acolyte as "the twilight world of unhappy poufs" and "the concentration of camp."
Bacon was not a very nice man, and the film is unflinching in its portrait of the artist. He quickly tires of his new boytoy. Dyer is obsessive compulsive, suffers from nightmares, and drinks heavily. When Bacon finds Dyer passed out on the floor, he coldly places a compact mirror under the unconscious man's mouth to see if he is breathing and then walks away. Later, when Bacon receives the news that Dyer is on the roof of their hotel, threatening to jump, he snarls "What do you want me to do, give him a push?"
There are two compelling reasons to see this film. The first is a bravura performance by our own Sir Derek Jacobi as Bacon. Jacobi, best known for the title role in the BBC's I, Claudius, comes from the same generation of British stage actors as Sir Ian McKellen. (Jacobi also once played, on stage and then on film, Alan Turing, the mathematician who broke the Enigma code during WWII, helping the English win the war. Years later Turing was jailed for being homosexual and killed himself). In Love is the Devil, Jacobi literally becomes Bacon, inhabiting the role with the skill of a master thespian. He excels at playing a bitch but he still finds the painter's humanity beneath the surface. Amazingly, he is also a dead ringer for the late artist.
The second reason is the film's evocative visual style. Director Maybury was able to turn what normally would be a liability into a great asset. Because the filmmakers were depicting the painter's actual private life, the estate of Francis Bacon refused to allow any of his paintings to be used onscreen. Using great ingenuity, Maybury makes the film itself a Bacon. The artist's searing images become the film's visuals. Faces are distorted in smoked mirrors and beer glasses, naked lightbulbs dangle predominately in the frame, a reflection in a series of three bathroom mirrors recalls the painter's many triptychs. A nude and contorted acrobat perches on a diving board, symbolizing Dyer's final fall into the abyss. This, and the film's opening image - a key going into a lock - reproduce two panels from a famous triptych painted in memory of Dyer's death.
Those unfamiliar with Bacon's paintings will miss the many visual references though they would probably recognize the master's work immediately should they walk into an art gallery after seeing the film. . Love is the Devil is subtitled Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon and this is appropriate. This is not a conventional narrative, but a series of impressions; not unlike the countless self portraits the artist painted throughout his life. Love is the Devil is the antithesis of the usual Hollywood bio-pic where historical figures are usually de-gayed (like Charlton Heston as Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy). This is a film that unfolds in layers and yields new discoveries on each subsequent viewing. Is it for everyone? Probably not, but adventurous filmgoers should find it spellbinding. by Michael D. KlemmAdditional DVD/Film reviews:
Another Country (BBC Video) 1984
9 Dead Gay Guys (TLA Video, 2003)
Ben and Arthur (Ariztical Entertainment Group) 2004
Relax... Itís Just Sex (1998)
Before Stonewall (1985)
Die Mommie Die (2003)
The Einstein of Sex (TLA Releasing, 1999)
Camp (IFC films) 2003
Another Country (BBC Video) 1984