Love Is the Devil

By Nancy Harrison

love-is-the-devil-john-maybury-1.jpgLove is the Devil, 1998

John Maybury's feature film on painter Francis Bacon is released on DVD

Inspired by Daniel Farson’s book The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon (and dedicated to Farson) Love is the Devil covers the period of Bacon’s career between 1964 to 1971, centring on the complex and ultimately doomed relationship between the painter and his rough-trade lover George Dyer.

Dyer enters Bacon’s life in an extreme fashion – crashing, during a failed burglary attempt, through a skylight and falling to the floor of Bacon’s studio – and leaves it in similarly extreme circumstances, swept away by a tidal wave of pills and alcohol in a luxurious Paris hotel room, alone, as Bacon attends a reception at the Grand Palais to honour his genius. The intervening seven years of their relationship are depicted as no less extreme, portraying Bacon as a masochist in private, allowing Dyer to dominate him at home, but a sadist in public, consistently and cruelly dominating Dyer through his caustic comments, his money and his fame. Dyer’s role as muse and model for some of Bacon’s best works of the period and Bacon’s role of ‘employer’ locks together their mutual dependence. Bacon's role as the increasingly emotionally remote lover is key to Dyer’s downfall – their tortured relationship, with the contrasts between them continually growing, was as much as anything down to the problem of incompatibilities of need. Bacon was drawn to the physical in Dyer, considering him firstly a body, a muscular shape, a physical, sexual presence; whilst Dyer was increasingly drawn to the emotional in Bacon, his enigma, his cruelty, the ‘otherness’ that Bacon represented to his own working-class, masculine background. But ultimately, as Bacon feasted off the physical Dyer, painting him again and again and brilliantly immortalising his image, Dyer became emotionally consumed and was inevitably left a hollow shell, cannibalised by Bacon’s images.

The film is mainly seen from Dyer’s point of view and it is not difficult to share his uneasy alienation from Bacon’s social world. In the Colony Room Dyer is mocked for his confusion over silverware by the grotesque regulars while they enjoy making vicious, snide barbs during a bacchanalian oyster feast. As he slowly slides further from sanity, Dyer’s recurring nightmares become more and more extreme, as if Bacon’s grotesque images were becoming his replacement reality. He appears to be moving from the role of model for the horrors of Bacon’s art, to an actual participant in those horrors, if only in his mind.

love-is-the-devil-john-maybury-2.jpgLove is the Devil, 1998

Colour is key to the film, particularly in the scenes in the Colony Room, which take on a strong bottle-green tone, with distorted images of the drinkers seemingly shot through the bottom of a wine bottle. A cool, grass green, too, is the colour associated with Bacon – the green furniture of his studio, the greenish tone in the kitchen, his rumpled green blankets on the bed. In contrast to this coolness are the red tones that become increasing associated with Dyer. Beginning his relationship with Bacon he appears in black: his burglar’s black clothing, his black leather jacket and sharp black suits (purchased by Bacon). This strong signature colour gradually changes to red, as his apparent strength is replaced by the danger associations of the colour. Bathed in tones of scarlet as his madness increases, and haunted by images of a gore-soaked creature falling into a black abyss, he eventually meets his end in the sumptuous surroundings of a blood-red Paris hotel. Images of Bacon, shot through shadowy darkness, such as in his dimly-lit studio during the initial part of the film, gradually give way to brighter-lit scenes, culminating in the flash-bulb filled triumph at the Palais. Dyer, however, gradually takes on the role of the shadow dweller, eking out his days in dark, smoke-filled pubs and casinos, to his final end in the dark hotel room.

The strength of the visual look throughout the film – the colour, the darkness, the distorted images – are all the more key to the film in light of the fact that permission to use Bacon’s painting was denied to Maybury by Bacon’s estate. This only served as a catalyst to Maybury, who has commented that “Any kind of barrier put in front of the film became a huge advantage, somehow. Every time someone threw a spanner in the works it forced us to be more inventive. I liked the solution of having just the backgrounds of paintings which you see in mirrors, and figures standing in front of the mirrors becoming figures in the paintings. At times it’s so subtle that you can’t instantly recognise them".

There are no ‘actual’ Bacon images in the film, despite the constant reminders of his grotesque, flesh-filled images, yet his distorted, smudged, twisted images clearly come through in the film. The triptychs that Bacon produced are suggested by images tripled by mirrors, and thickly painted canvases are suggested during the scenes of Bacon painting with handfuls of paint smeared across his own face.

Derek Jacobi is superb as Bacon, his physical resemblance alone remarkable, totally assuming the character of the painter. Daniel Craig is excellent as the once-tough burglar reduced to a wreck by the excess of the bohemian art circles he finds himself in, travelling a fatal path from predator to emotional parasite.

Read the original interview with John Maybury (by Executive Producer John Maybury) in Vertigo Volume 1, Issue 8 (Summer 1998).

Nancy Harrison is a freelance writer and film producer specialising in documentary.