Love is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon Review
Having reviewed Love is the Devil: Portrait for a Study of Francis Bacon in its previous UK Region 2 incarnation (courtesy of Artificial Eye) the bulk of this piece will be a simple reproduction. For those wishing to see how this new BFI release differs please refer to the section marked ‘The Disc’.
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 Adrien Brody psychodrama The Jacket and The Edge of Love with Keira Knightley. 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.
Whilst the Artificial Eye handling of Love is the Devil for its previous UK DVD release was generally fine, it was distinctly lacking in worthwhile extras – the only additions being the original theatrical trailer and text pieces covering the cast and crew alongside interview material. The presentation was first time around was sound, though here a marked improvement can be seen. The 1.78:1 aspect ratio of the AE disc is now replaced with a seemingly more correct 1.66:1, once again anamorphically enhanced, though the print would appear – if memory serves – pretty much identical. The washed out colour scheme is present once more and some damage is perceivable in places. Unfortunately I no longer have the AE disc to hand to offer a more precise comparison, though it is clear that this newer disc just about trumps it. As for the soundtrack here we find a suitably expressive PCM stereo offering that undoubtedly works better than the AE DD2.0 version did. It’s worth noting that the sound design is particularly expressive, interacting as it does with Ryuichi Sakamoto’s abrasive score. Heard on the BFI disc it’s as good as we could ever expect.
The extras similarly display a fuller dimension on this BFI disc, the highlight being John Maybury and Derek Jacobi indulging in a chatty, informal commentary. Clearly enjoying the film, the pair find the time to discuss its low-budget origins (and inventiveness), the subsequent careers of their collaborators (Craig, of course, now being Bond) and more besides. They dry up a little as the time ticks on, though I get the feeling this is mainly owing to the fact that they’re becoming too engrossed in the film in front of them.
Additional extras include a 20-minute interview with producers Ben Gibson and Chiara Menage, in which they discuss the protracted history of how the film came to be and the problems they faced, plus a documentary short on the Colony Room Club – the setting for many of Love is the Devil’s scenes. Unfortunately this latter piece is something of a disappointment. Shot in self-consciously arty black and white, it’s all a little to in awe of itself and those in front of the camera: Damien Hirst, Lisa Stansfield, Tracey Emin and others. Indeed, there’s little to be discerned about the Colony and its history other than the current boozy antics of Hirst, et al.
Rounding off the package we find the now standard BFI booklet of various articles, biographies, production stills and credits. This particular one stretches to 26-pages and includes new pieces by Sir Christopher Frayling, Michael O’Pray and Nigel Arthur (on the photographs of Jorge Leon).
Note that English hard-of-hearing subtitles are available for the Maybury-Jacobi commentary but none of the other special features. Also, The Colony comes in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio but has been anamorphically enhanced.