PRINT September 1998


On the heels of the blood-and-gutsy Britpack invasion, filmmaker John Maybury offers up the life of British gore’s favorite forefather, Francis Bacon. Replete with cameos from the YBA likes of Gary Hume and Sarah Lucas, Love Is the Devil is set to open next month on both sides of the Atlantic. Here, art historian Richard Shone appraises Maybury’s cinematic portrait.

A FILM ABOUT FRANCIS BACON was bound to happen. The particular odor of catastrophe that exudes from the major players of his pictorial dramas demands both key and explanation. He was an unmitigatedly autobiographical painter, cannibalizing friends and lovers in a ceaseless search for potent images. His life was lived outside the pale of morality, swinging between extremes of risk and certitude, high living and old-fashioned squalor. John Maybury’s Love Is the Devil focuses on just eight years of that life (1964–71), when Bacon’s lover was George Dyer, a petty crook from the East End of London whose manly, sharp-suited exterior belied a more than usually neurotic and tangled temperament. A failure as a criminal, he made drinking his occupation. In the film, Daniel Craig is better looking and better built than the man he portrays. When he speaks, which is rarely, the weird strangled cockney of Dyer’s speech impediment is not attempted. For the sexually masochistic Bacon, Dyer was a gift: bedtime dominance was allied with untutored ignorance. Bacon wanted to get beaten by Dyer and be seen with him, not talk to him about Aeschylus or Velázquez. It’s an old story. For Dyer, Bacon was a liberation. He launched him into the hard-drinking, amoral Soho of the ’60s, he wined and dined him, and he took him abroad; he made him the subject of paintings which, if incomprehensible to Dyer, appealed to his need for attention. Eventually, the relationship dwindled into recriminations, skirmishes, and temporary separations. Bacon’s exasperation turned to boredom. The affair ended with Dyer’s “accidental” suicide in a Paris hotel room, where he collapsed from pills and liquor between toilet and sink, on the eve of Bacon’s retrospective accolade at the Grand Palais. A consummate actor, Bacon smiled and talked his way through the ceremony, and it is this macabre scene, a poisoned madeleine for what follows, that acts as preface: immediately after it we jump back seven years to Bacon and Dyer’s first meeting. Chronology is then more or less respected, and the film ends with Dyer’s suicide—if such it was—and its aftermath.

In making Love Is the Devil, Maybury worked under several disadvantages. Bacon’s estate refused him permission to reproduce the painter’s work on film. Whenever the presence of paintings is unavoidable in the movie, we are treated to pastiches—though fortunately those moments are few. Secondly, several of Bacon’s friends and colleagues refused to help, feeling that the events to be portrayed were still painfully recent and that Maybury’s purpose was sensationalism. Instead, the late Daniel Farson, author of The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, was appointed consultant, and some of his book’s garrulous inconsequentiality seeps into the film. It is also noticeable that Farson, when he appears, is presented pretty straight, whereas almost all the other secondary characters are grotesques, which, like Farson, they were in real life, especially John Deakin, the photographer, and Muriel Belcher, the notoriously imperious and foulmouthed proprietress of the Colony Room (an after-hours drinking club in Soho), for whom “Hello, Cunty” was a habitual greeting and who described one of her regulars as the “the sphincter without a secret.” This big-hearted woman is played with aplomb by Tilda Swinton, star of Derek Jarman films and of Orlando. Such casting leads us to the credit side.

Here, Maybury’s ace was to engage Sir Derek Jacobi to play Bacon. Although the film is by no means slavish in its period re-creation, Jacobi is uncannily like Bacon in physical presence and gesture, even to the plumply rounded forearms and pear-shaped face. I knew Bacon only slightly but can vouch for Jacobi’s performance (although, as with Craig/Dyer, he doesn’t attempt his master’s voice, that singular mixture of clear Anglo-Irish enunciation and East End whine). Others who knew Bacon better may have holes to pick (there are one or two moments when Quentin Crisp rather than Francis Bacon comes to mind—crispy bacon, in fact), but one extra who had known Bacon found Jacobi so upsettingly like the artist that, seeing him in action, she dissolved into tears (which of course a good many people did when confronted by Bacon himself). Yet, paradoxically, this close likeness hardly matters. The film is really about a middle-aged queen falling for a younger man who comes from a completely different world. Their back-to-back social assumptions provide the comedy; their contrasting values, the tragedy. It is a stock idea (English cultural life is riddled with such affairs and their often grisly consequences), and after the suicide sequence at the end you are left with the Peggy Lee–ish feeling of “Is that all there is?” The narrative is tritely episodic within an uncomfortably voyeuristic frame, as though Maybury had never quite sorted out his own obsessions from those of Bacon and his entourage.

There are further clichés. There’s the voice-over from Jacobi, which is like the commentary of a Greek chorus; although it isn’t too intrusive, it could easily have been scrapped. Then there’s the “atmospheric” score, including the dreaded sound of gongs, by Ryuichi Sakamoto (who won prizes for his sound track to Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor [1987]). Lastly, Maybury’s intention was to evoke not Bacon’s day-to-day world but the physical appearance of his work—its color and texture, set pieces of figures in rooms, the smeared complicity of human movement and brute paint. There are strongly lit close-ups shot from below that then crane up to look down from above or dolly to the side; bodies seen from high vantage, on crumpled bedsheets under a naked lightbulb. We move from definition to blur like a lump of sugar dissolving in a glass of blood. I found all this far too “clever,” the work of a precocious film-school graduate. Of course, this filmic imitation of an artist’s work is a tempting ploy—Jarman did it in Caravaggio (1986), Vincente Minnelli in Lust for Life (1956), and Alexander Korda in Rembrandt (1936) (perhaps, in sheer visual terms, the most underrated of artist biopics). But because Love Is the Devil is a body snatcher’s view of an episode in Bacon’s life, such visual emulation remains tricky. Even Minnelli, heavy-handedly perhaps, at least tried to relate Van Gogh’s art and life. With Bacon we are dealing with a perverse, contradictory, and (frank though he could be) elusive man whose wayward background and chameleon charm make all biographical explanations of his work highly tentative. His life obviously fueled his art, but he made the great decision never to confuse their aims. He was self-protectively disingenuous about the origins of his imagery; he didn’t want to disclose too much about sources often rooted in chance and accident. Although Maybury cannot show Bacon’s paintings, there is an implicit tendency toward explanation—the paintings are like this because his life is like this—and the presumption that, by filming in this imitative way, we are offered a key to the work. This is, I think, a fatal flaw.

A feature of the film that may go unrecognized by a general audience is the parallel Maybury draws between the artist’s social life of the ’60s with that of London now. There are glimpses throughout—in scenes set in pubs, clubs, and restaurants—of Gillian Wearing, Tracey Emin, Angus Fairhurst, Sarah Lucas, and a host of faces with familiar names. Gary Hume even gets to speak as a tiresomely importunate painter whom Bacon squashes with a bitchy put-down (and, judging from this cameo appearance, Hume shouldn’t quit his day job). The big difference of course, besides the demographic one (in Bacon’s time few artists lived in East London) is the pervasively gay element of ’60s Soho as opposed to the predominantly hetero tone of the Britpack. It was by no means exclusively gay, of course, but the anarchic freedom of camp talk electrified the atmosphere, opened doors and put things in perspective. Today’s social tone, in spite of outward excesses, is puritanical and materialist. If Muriel Belcher set the standard with her references to the Führer as Miss Hitler; Bacon, known to Muriel as “daughter,” had an exhilarating flair for scathing abuse and throwaway realism, as when, in the film, he sensibly warns Dyer against the predatory photographer John Deakin: “Don’t let him pick your pocket while he’s fiddling with your cock.” I wish there had been more of this local color instead of the ersatz Baconian palette that threatens to upstage the cast. Perhaps one day Muriel Belcher herself will inspire a film. Now, there’s a subject with which a director could feel free to go to town, for she left neither paintings nor books, but only memories behind.

Richard Shone is associate editor of Burlington Magazine and a regular contributor to Artforum.