The painter Francis Bacon was once quoted as saying that the only portraits he painted were of his friends, because “If they were not my friends, I could not do such violence to them.” It was the imposition of violence on intimacy – or vice versa – that gave Bacon's portraiture its power, that made his art disturbing, shocking. His work didn't fall squarely in the schools of either realism or expressionism; it was neither surreal nor abstract, though critics made claims for all of the above. In truth, his art sprang from the epigram his character spouts in the new film about his life, Love Is the Devil: “I'm optimistic by nature. I'm optimistic about nothing.”
In his debut feature film, writer-director John Maybury has narrowed the scope of Bacon's life, fashioning a narrative that centers mainly on Bacon's volatile relationship with his lover and chief muse, George Dyer. The film opens with a symbolic and prophetic crash: Dyer, attempting to burgle Bacon's loft, falls through the roof in a slow-motion, seemingly endless descent and lands hard on the floor of the artist's messy studio. Investigating the disturbance, Bacon slowly looks Dyer up and down, then tells him that if he undresses and gets into bed, he can have whatever he wants. It's the start of a love affair.
When Bacon (brilliantly essayed by Derek Jacobi) takes Dyer (Daniel Craig, a walking wound who nearly steals the film) to meet his circle of friends – a group consisting of intellectuals and artists such as Lucian Freud – for the first time, one of them snidely asks the couple, “Who's Martha and who's Arthur?” The answer to the sniggeringly crude question about sexual positioning masks the more complex plotting of the relationship. While working-class George pressed burning cigarettes into Francis' flesh and snapped his leather belt over the kneeling artist's quivering backside, it was really George who was the “passive” member of the duo. He inspired Bacon's best work but didn't understand it; he tended Bacon's sexual fantasies and, having made the mistake of falling in love, bore the weight of the painter's scalding abuse until it undermined his sanity.
Maybury uses the couple's tumultuous relationship to paint his own portrait of Bacon; the figure on the canvas is cruel, bitchy, witty and completely self-absorbed. Bacon's real emotion is saved for his work, which in turn reflects his vinegary view of the world. Though the voice-over that threads through the film is beautifully poetic, and though we get glimpses of a solitary Bacon whose inner misery leaks through his pinched facade, the man emerges as an insufferable jerk.
Maybury accurately captures the tediousness of creation, the frustration of the spark that never fully ignites and the futility of fanning it. In a scene illustrating the flash of inspiration, Bacon is shown squirming orgasmically at a screening of Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin, whose shot of the bloodied nurse with the broken eyeglasses was a huge influence on his work. One of the artist's most frequently recurring influences, Eadweard Muybridge's wrestling photos of nude men, is paid homage in the tussling, headless naked male figures that are periodically dropped into the film.
More often than not, though, Maybury is overly stylized, drifting into leaden symbolism. One set has a lone, prostrate Dyer in a shaft of light, framed by encroaching shadow. The camera's angles elongate, blur and distort the features of Bacon's slithering coterie, in obvious and overdone mimicry of the artist's painting style. The friends are literally turned into grotesques, which is too simple an interpretation of what Bacon was after. Love Is the Devil is a difficult film to recommend, even though there's much about it that's exemplary: the acting, the writing, the way it captures moods and feelings. But Bacon, despite the few tears he sheds, is a relentlessly bleak character. The most the film can do is loop that fact and sell it to you from different angles. It's meant to be brave, but mostly it's just depressing.