A Side of Bacon

Love is the Devil
Written and directed by John Maybury

In 1964, as art legend and John Maybury's Love Is the Devil would have it, East End tough George Dyer dropped through the skylight of preeminent painter Francis Bacon's London flat to rob the place. Bacon caught him in the act and, instead of calling the police, offered a situation. If Dyer would come to bed, Bacon lured, he could have anything.

So not only was Bacon one of the greatest painters of the 20th century, he had a sympathetic way with handling an intruder. If only the dullards who came up with Proposition B could be so imaginative.

It's the best scene in a film that relies more on visual style than it does dramatic action. Derek Jacobi, as Bacon, confronts the would-be burglar in the artist's toxic dump of a studio (Bacon's studio was notoriously layered with the detritus of his creative activity, and Love Is the Devil doesn't do it justice). Jacobi plays Bacon as absolutely fearless -- the artist was an Irish rough himself -- and one who cooly estimates each move. To watch Jacobi shift from confrontational to calculating to appraising (he's like a chef who's been given a prime cut of beef) to seductive to nearly tender is a treat. Maybury would have been well advised to allow the veteran actor to supply more of the same throughout the film.

Maybury, a devotee of the late Derek Jarman, is after something other than character exploration. As the subtitle, "Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon," signifies, this is a film made up of parts of Bacon's world, a series of vignettes and images that may move toward the subject without presuming to ever fully realize him.

This approach to Bacon may have come about because Maybury was working under the constraints of the artist's estate, which refused to allow any of Bacon's work to appear onscreen -- something to do with the sullying of the artist's reputation. As if Bacon's reputation is anything other than what it was -- that of a sometimes petty, sometimes cruel man who drank and gambled to extraordinary excess (the fact that Bacon lived to 83 is one of the great feats of hedonistic endurance in this century). He was homosexual with a taste for S&M. He could be sharp-tongued, a crashing bore, extravagant with his friends, even tender. As an artist he was at times possessed by genius, as much as any has been this century. He's one of the few painters of our time of whom you can speak in the same breath as Ingres or Velasquez or Rembrandt and not feel you're being silly.

Without Bacon's paintings at his disposal, Maybury creates a world made from the vision the paintings suggest. Faces are elongated by the chrome of beer taps, bodies are distorted by cheap barroom mirrors. Dyer, the thief who becomes Bacon's lover (played as a sad, doomed, desperate and wholly sympathetic character by Daniel Craig) becomes one of the artist's principal subjects in the paintings of the 1960s and early '70s. Maybury finds ways to frame Dyer in poses found in the paintings: a crumpled mass in a dark suit on the floor after a bender; in profile showing a jaunty jaw-line and a beefy grin; and, ultimately, a husk of a man retching over a toilet, as Dyer died of an overdose of pills in Paris in 1971 -- the night Bacon's triumphant retrospective opened at the Grand Palais.

If you don't know Bacon's paintings, you won't appreciate the ingenuity with which Maybury transforms lurid portraiture into film reality. However, even it you do know Bacon's work, the cinematic replication of the artist's visual style is not enough for Love Is the Devil to succeed. What Maybury has here, for all his craft and daring, is the story of a doomed love affair. Bacon is kind, then Bacon is cruel to the unsophisticated Dyer. Dyer doesn't fit in with Bacon's quick-witted friends at the infamous Colony Club (roughly parallel as a sordid haven for mean artistic spirits to the Cedar Street Tavern in New York in the '50s). Dyer fades in Bacon's bright, unforgiving sun.

The sentiments, naturally and unimaginatively, go to Dyer here, with Maybury exposing Bacon at his worst. After Dyer's death, artist (and rival) David Hockney appears at Bacon's dinner table to give condolences. In reply, Bacon blows his nose on a napkin, "Oh, I don't know whether to laugh or cry," he says in bitter mockery of Hockney's sympathetic gesture.

To Maybury's and Jacobi's credit, Bacon remains more enigma than monster. Jacobi is an actor dead-on in every moment: The small gestures of vainly tugging at the forelocks of his hair, slurping a glass of wine, checking the fit of his black leather jacket, posing in a photo booth -- all accumulate to give fascinating glimpses of a complex man.

But choosing Bacon's affair with Dyer as the central narrative through which to compose a "study" of the artist's life is taking the most trammeled course. Films about artists' difficult and tawdry lives are tedious. They give us the experience and not the meaning, to borrow an idea from T.S. Eliot. A painter who saw humanity as the sum of teeth, meat and bone and yet portrayed it as both horrendous and beautiful deserves more than the standard movie simplifications.

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