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Champagne for my real friends, real pain for my sham friends!
A portrait of LOVE IS THE DEVIL, A STUDY FOR A PORTRAIT OF FRANCIS BACON by Lord Summerisle
 

Reacquainting myself with this film for the purposes of this review, I remembered how great Love is the Devil, Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon (to give it its full title) is. It is a biography of British abstract artist Francis Bacon during arguably his greatest period, the 1960s-70s, that happened to be the same period George Dyer was his lover. Dyer (Daniel Craig) encountered Bacon (Derek Jacobi) when botching a robbery in the artist's studio. They were instantly attracted to each other, even though they came from very different backgrounds. Plot wise, that's about it, but director and writer John Maybury forges a rare character driven film that does not sacrifice aesthetic emphasis.

Bio-pics are notoriously hard things to pull off successfully, and when it comes to such a movie about an artist, it becomes even more difficult to navigate a well known person's life, reflect their work and tell an absorbing story without losing your audience. Obviously in a story about a renowned artist, separating the person from the work is impossible, but what is really important is the level of insight into the personality that has informed the work. Julie Taymor's Frida (2002), is one example of a movie that overplays the merging of an artist and her work in film form. And one could argue Ed Harris's Pollock (2000), although an absorbing biography, did lack some of the artistic flare that the mise en scene could have provided. John Maybury, however, tackles this marriage with a contrast between subtlety and the occasional avant-garde set up. It practically wholly translates Bacon's painting into the medium of film and is so expertly handled the transitions from a naturalistic reality to the abstract are seamless.

The only fully worthy comparison to this is Naked Lunch (1991) by David Cronenberg. It similarly marries the ideas and the mental workings that structured the writer, William S Burroughs' work with an autobiographical narrative. The main difference is that the plot, being interwoven with parts of the Naked Lunch novel, is actually a part of his art. Love is the Devil follows a more traditional biographical narrative, yet manages to achieve an equal essence of a man's work, although the Cronenberg piece is so heavily thematic it stands more of a chance of losing ian audience of non avid Burroughs fans.

How Maybury manages to make his such an absorbing film is by throwing it, kicking and screaming, into the genre of a love story, similarly to another of our fine exports, Alex Cox's bio-pic Sid and Nancy (1986). In both narratives the catalyst and foundation of interest is in the bringing together of two quite different people, although they have something in common to bond them. In Sid and Nancy it is their love of the punk movement and its ideology that keeps the protagonists together. In Love is the Devil it is Bacon and Dyer's shared homosexuality that bridges the gap between class and intellect. One could say it is 'love' in both of these cases keeping these characters together, but an intelligent reading of either film leads one to the conclusion that their motives are a lot more complex than that. With Love is the Devil it's all in the title. The concept of love in this film is not the same as you would find in a mainstream film. Here love is something that imprisons you. Something stifling and claustrophobic. Something complex and sometimes horrific. 'Love' scenes take place in dark oppressive rooms, the act of sex often shown as an abstract grapple, a purely physical act. Jacobi quips in one of the delightfully skewed drunken scenes at the Colony, when asked if he shows his feelings in his work; "Feelings?! Feelings? I prefer to show two men fucking!" perfectly echoing the unsentimental and primitive attitude connoted in the blurred and objective sex scenes. The act is rendered impersonal by the framing of shots showing no faces, no distinguishable traces of feeling, just the act.

Essentially the film is a filmic rendering of Bacon and Dyer's psyches shown through a complex weaving of cross-examinations and contrasts with their relationship as the catalyst. Bacon is a mass of contradiction and confusion posing as self confidence, taking out his anxieties on the less intelligent Dyer. George was an unhappy man on meeting Bacon, forced into a life of petty crime by circumstance, yet the relationship brought out his demons. What you have in this film is two men struggling for coherence, trying to make sense of their world. A world where distinctions between pleasure and pain, ugliness and beauty, class systems and sexuality, are blurred. The macho Dyer wants tenderness, the camp Francis gives him cruelty. One is ying to the others yang. George; the muse, the emotionally submissive but sexually dominant, the 'boy', Francis; the artist, a sexual masochist and emotional sadist.

This confusion and questioning of the nature of love and life is all set to the colour palette of Bacon's works. Emphasis, as was Bacon's, on the portrait. Abstracted using myriad resourceful techniques, the most notable of which being the Colony scenes shot through the distortion and point of view of cocktail glasses. Imagery connoting intoxication, desolation, loneliness, disorientation. Bacon alone in portrait shots framed rectangularly, like a canvas, by foreground images. Bacon alone in his studio. George alone in the hotel room. All these scenes are so indicative of the solitary figures painted on Bacons canvases. Even the triptychs and Bacons fascination with reflection are connoted by a three piece shaving mirror both George and Francis stare into as well as numerous lingering solitary reflections. If you're looking for exact translation, look no further than Bacon turning the light bulb on and off looking into a mirror, an exact replica of one of his paintings of the period.

I have always thought of John Maybury as a man who draws from more diverse influences than many modern filmmakers, with his background in the avant-garde and projects with the likes of Leigh Bowery. Therefore it's no surprise that he includes rather a lot of Bacons fascination with Eisenstein, showing him viewing the Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin etc. Although personally there is one influence indulged in that is closer to my heart.

As previously mentioned, Love is the Devil has comparisons with the Naked Lunch film in its tackling of a biographical topic. Although, this is not the only area where these two converge. Bacon speaks of Tangiers briefly in the film, where both he and William Burroughs frequented during the 1960s (as did many homosexual and bohemian artists of the time). Also, there is a reference where George speaks on the telephone to a "Dr Benway," a famous Burroughs character. This cements the connection as an intended facet of influence by Maybury, saying how universal the troubled mind of the 1960's artist seemed to be, as well as how influential they were on each other, injecting as subtle a homage to the American avant-garde as one might expect from a man of Mayburys background. Benway is also a character of dark mystery in Burroughs writings, a theme that shrouds existence within the diegesis of the entire film.

Before I take this review into unnecessary pastures I will speak briefly on sound and wrap it up!

sound and vision

Ryuichi Sakamoto's score is wonderfully in keeping with the atmosphere. There are horror-esque orchestral discordant rips when an abstract Baconism (yes I know, well it's a word now!) is realised, beautifully understated keyboards in more tender moments and nothing to jar you out of the world Maybury weaves around you. Nauseating pulses undulate beneath inhumane noises on the occasion an avant-garde sequence is in order, or sympathetic notes trickle under a scene of sadness. In my opinion Sakamoto does the job of a good screen composer and is hardly noticed.The anamorphically enhanced 1.78:1 transfer is a little on the bright side, giving the picture a deceptively washed-out look that is easily corrected simply by edging the brightness on your TV down a little. With this correction effected the picture quality is often first rate, if occasionally a little uneven, with contrast, detail and black levels fine on daytime exteriors, but greying out a little on darker interiors. There are also some visible compression artefacts in some of these scenes on areas of single colour (walls, etc.). Colours in daylight scenes are strong, with the more stylised greens at The Colony acurately captured. On the whole, this is a fine transfer that for the most part accurately reflects how the film looked in the cinema.

The soundtrack is Dolby 2.0 stereo. Clarity is excellent and the separation is very good, notably on the music and sound effects.

extra features

A disappointingly sparse collection of extras include Production Notes, basically a magazine style article with Maybury, Jacobi and Craig talking about the film and their approaches to it. A Theatrical Trailer which shows a target audience strongly geared towards independent and arthouse, with much of the abstract imagery. It is interesting, although the poor picture quality of this trailer it highlights just how good the feature print is. Finally, there are Filmographies, detailing what projects the writer/director and main cast have been involved in via two or three paragraph summaries. Unfortunately, that's all folks!

summary

A remarkable and intelligent piece of independent filmmaking, showing John Maybury is much more than just Derek Jarman's ex-apprentice. With last year's The Jacket and Daniel Craig's up and coming Bond film in the pipeline, this is a timely release for Love is the Devil on DVD. I'm just disappointed the dismal amount of features don't do the film and its excellent transfer justice.

Love is the Devil


UK / France / japan 1998
90 mins
director
John Maybury
starring
Derek Jacobi
Daniel Craig
Tilda Swinton
Anne Lambton
Adrian Scarborough
Karl Johnson
Annabel Brooks

DVD details
region 2
video
1.78:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 stereo
languages
English
subtitles
none
extras
Production notes
Theatrical trailer
Filmographies
distributor
Artificial Eye
release date
27 March 2006
review posted
28 March 2006

related review
Love is the Devil [BFI DVD]

See all of Lord Summerisle's reviews