Unconventional, audacious and uncompromising in every sense, John Maybury’s “Love Is the Devil” is a very personal interpretation of the destructive relationship between British painter Francis Bacon and his lover and muse, George Dyer. This provocative film’s unflinchingly unsympathetic portrayal of the artist — ferociously played by Derek Jacobi — and its often distancing, experimental style, make it clearly an item for niche audiences. But it nonetheless looks certain to become a talked-about release backed by plenty of critical heft and a benchmark for future films about artists.
Presumably unable to obtain permission from Bacon’s estate to use his work, Maybury instead has developed a visual style that approximates his morbid, horrific images in boldly inventive ways. Many films in recent memory — including Maurice Pialat’s “Van Gogh,” Julian Schnabel’s “Basquiat” and “Caravaggio” by late Maybury crony Derek Jarman — have to some degree incorporated their subject’s painting style into their approach. But the fusion here between Bacon’s work and Maybury’s portrait of him goes much deeper, showing a filmmaker with startling control.
Opening with Bacon’s crowning success, a 1971 retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris, the film backtracks seven years to recount his meeting in London with Dyer (Daniel Craig), a small-time criminal from the lower-working-class East End. Dropping through a skylight to rob Bacon’s studio, Dyer instead is ordered by the painter to remove his clothes, come to bed and then take what he wants. He does as instructed and becomes Francis’ “new tart,” soon being introduced to the coterie of bitchy friends whom Bacon carouses with at Soho’s Colony Room and whom the painter describes as “the concentration of camp.”
Bacon’s sexual proclivity for masochism — conveyed with great restraint by Maybury — is matched by his emotional sadism, which is put on hold during the relationship’s early stages as he relishes his lover’s mix of amorality and innocence. But as time passes, his contentment seems to fade. He begins belittling George in public for his lack of sophistication, locks him out while he entertains other rough trade and is scornfully dismissive about his suicide attempts.
Jacobi’s remarkable performance depicts Bacon as supercilious and cruel but also quietly appalled by his own life and behavior. He clearly loves George, but while able intermittently to acknowledge this to himself and select friends, he’s unwilling to express his feelings to his partner.
Increasingly more locked into drug- and alcohol-induced altered states, George finally does kill himself, as Francis is toasted at the exhibition in which his lover is the subject of some of his most celebrated paintings. The contrast between Bacon’s derision when David Hockney offers his condolences and his private grief — shown succinctly in a desolate opening shot — makes the artist both a monster and a tragic figure.
Echoes of Bacon’s art are everywhere in cinematographer John Mathieson’s swimming, distorted visuals and grotesque, up-close angles, as well as in specific constructs: a mirrored triptych as Bacon applies makeup, a seafood dinner, tortured sexual couplings and George’s pained visions of a bloody, agonized body. The unsettling tone of the material carries through to Ryuichi Sakamoto’s dense soundtrack of music, droning and noise.
Known mainly for his work in the BBC drama “Our Friends in the North,” Craig has a role that is no less central than Jacobi’s, and he creates a poignant figure of the sexy lout whose destiny to be discarded is predicted early on by his roughneck friends. Supporting cast also is on-target, especially the circle of Soho vipers, spitting out their barbs with great aplomb. Leader of the gang is an almost unrecognizable Tilda Swinton, hilarious as the acerbic lesbian den mother.
The film is dedicated to Bacon’s friend and biographer Daniel Farson, who wrote what is considered the definitive tome on the artist, “The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon” and served as consultant here prior to his death.