FILM REVIEW; Inside an Artist's Mind In a World of Torment
By STEPHEN HOLDEN
Published: October 7, 1998
Anyone who subscribes to the sentimental fallacy that great artists are nicer people than the rest of us (the reasoning goes that because they supposedly feel more than ordinary mortals, they must be nobler and more caring) hasn't met many great artists. If anything, the reverse tends to be true: the obsessive pursuit of an artistic idea more often than not involves a ruthless tunnel vision that screens out anything that isn't useful to the work or to the career.
''Love Is the Devil,'' John Maybury's searing portrait of the English painter Francis Bacon (Derek Jacobi) at the height of his fame in the 1960's, is one of the nastiest and most truthful portraits of the artist-as-monster ever filmed. Its story of the colossally self-absorbed painter and his self-destructive younger lover, George Dyer (Daniel Craig), begins when Bacon awakens in his studio one night to discover a burglar on the premises. Sizing up the thief as an appetizing piece of rough trade, Bacon makes a proposition: if the robber sheds his clothes and comes to bed with him, he promises, he can have anything he wants. The next thing you know, they're a couple.
Bacon craves being totally dominated by other men, but the most you see of him acting out this fantasy is in an early scene where Bacon kneels over a bed while George knots a belt around his fist and aims a lighted cigarette at his bare back. Later in the film, he attends a boxing match where he watches intensely as one fighter smashes the other in the head, splattering a jet of blood onto Bacon's ecstatic face.
But the movie also makes clear that the dynamics of dominance and submission work both ways. Outside the bedroom, Bacon is relentlessly controlling of his lover, who falls to pieces. Bacon refers dismissively to George as his ''odd job man,'' and locks him out of the house when he's entertaining other sexual partners. When George tells Bacon he loves him, the artist wonders out loud what bad television show those lines came from.
Bacon is similarly high-handed with his circle of friends, whom the movie portrays as a viperish nest of supercilious hangers-on. ''Champagne for my real friends; real pain for my sham friends,'' Bacon caustically announces in one of several scenes of nocturnal carousal.
When a young painter who idolizes Bacon begs him to come see his work, Bacon retorts that the young man's taste in neckties is proof he couldn't possibly have any talent. In Mr. Jacobi's uncompromising hard-edged performance, you can feel the cold fury burning behind Bacon's glare.
What makes ''Love Is the Devil'' more than a disturbingly rancid love story is John Mathieson's brilliant cinematography, which saturates the film with Bacon's corrosive artistic vision. Although ''Love Is the Devil'' doesn't show any of Bacon's work, the look of the entire film resembles a Bacon painting.
Acidic lighting throws the characters' faces into harsh relief, often shadowing their eyes and making their flesh appear to crumble. Certain images become Baconesque diptychs and triptychs through the use of mirrors. Some scenes are photographed through distorting lenses that stretch faces into sinister masks that dissolve and decompose. In a recurrent fantasy image of George, he is a flayed, bloodied figure leaping from a diving board into the void.
Here and there, the movie stumbles, and you can sense the budgetary constraints (a trip to the United States is indicated only by a picture of an American flag in the background). But in presuming to take you inside the mind and heart of a major artist, confronting the demonic aspect of the human condition, ''Love Is the Devil,'' which opens today at the Film Forum, goes as far and as deep as any movie has dared.
LOVE IS THE DEVIL
Written and directed by John Maybury; director of photography, John Mathieson; music by Ryuichi Sakamoto; production designer, Alan MacDonald; produced by Chiara Menage; released by Strand Releasing. At Film Forum, 209 Houston Street, South Village. Running time: 91 minutes. This film is not rated.
WITH: Derek Jacobi (Francis Bacon), Daniel Craig (George Dyer), Tilda Swinton (Muriel Belcher), Anne Lambton (Isabel Raws thorne), Adrian Scarborough (Daniel Farson), Karl Johnson (John Deakin) and Annabel Brooks (Henrietta Moraes).
Love Is the Devil (1998)
October 7, 1998