Love is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon Review
Love is the Devil, made in 1997, marked John Maybury’s cinematic debut, one which has only recently been followed up in the shape of recent Adrien Brody psychodrama The Jacket. Previously he’d been best known as a maker of pop promos – most famously for Sinead O’Connor’s ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ – and as a video artist. Indeed, the artist aspect is important because Maybury isn’t interested in providing a strict biographical account of his subject, namely Francis Bacon, and delivery fact after fact after fact, but instead offers up an investigation or perhaps even an interpretation. As the subtitle has it, the film is a “study for a portrait”, not the real thing.
Of course, Love is the Devil still tells a tale as it were and has chosen to focus on Bacon between the years of 1962 and 1972. This was the period of his relationship with petty criminal and eventual muse George Dyer, one which would end in Dyer’s drug-assisted suicide. As such Maybury is essentially creating a love story and sees everything else as an extension of this central concern. His film opens with the pair’s first meeting, when Dyer was attempting to burgle Bacon’s flat (“Take off your clothes, come to bed and you can have whatever you want”), and concludes with Dyer’s death.
Yet what makes this love story so interesting is not so much the connection between the two, but the clash. Love is the Devil brings to mind the recent television adaptation of The Long Firm which also starred Derek Jacobi. Here he’s playing Bacon, there he was a homosexual politician mixed up in gangland circles and in both cases we get a mixture of the Soho middle classes and East End villainy: Turkish baths, the art world, boxing matches and sadism all come together in a particularly heady blend. It’s this clash of cultures which is by far the film’s most forceful aspect – and because it works, so does the relationship. Of course, we’ve also got Jacobi delivering an unnervingly uncanny portrayal of Bacon, but in such a situation that’s really only so much icing on the cake.
That said, Maybury’s dramatic recreations of the period and its people aren’t there simply to be exact. He continually offers them through various visual distortions – odd lenses, smeared frames – as though to disavow any claims to genuine authenticity. Instead he’s going for a more hallucinatory approach, one from which he can escape the standard pitfalls of the biopic and as such head off into less expected areas. Certainly, there are a great deal of tonal shifts throughout Love is the Devil - one moment Maybury is going for overt theatricality, the next he’s projecting his protagonists’ nightmares and imaginations. And yet because this is a film which refuses the conventional, such a blend never feels out of place or, perhaps more importantly, ramshackle. Indeed, Love is the Devil is very much its director’s own; he may reference Bacon throughout courtesy of the colour schemes, the framing of flesh as indistinct masses and the repeated use of mirrors to split the screen in triptychs, yet ultimately the artist behind the film is Maybury himself.
Finally gaining a DVD release in the UK, Artificial Eye’s handling of Love is the Devil is standard at best. The film comes in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1, is anamorphically enhanced and stricken from a generally fine print. Damage is intermittent, but never overly distracting, and the image has a washed out feel which is presumably intentional. (I’ve not seen the film since its initial screening on BBC2 and as such can’t recall its presentation in too vivid a detail.) It’s also perhaps a little too soft in places and does suffer from edge enhancement. As for the soundtrack, here we find the original mono (as DD2.0) and it too is perfectly adequate without ever really impressing. Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score never sounds quite as expressive as it should, although the dialogue never once struggles to be heard. Special features, on the hand, are limited to the original theatrical trailer, brief biographies for the key cast and crew members and some production notes including interview material with Maybury.