Love Is The Devil DVD review

Daniel Craig is the tormented love-interest of notorious bohemian Francis Bacon in this BFI re-issue of the artist's 1998 biopic...

Daniel Craig as George Dyer in Love Is The Devil.

Released in 1998, John (The Jacket) Maybury’s Love is the Devil is a drama based on the life of renowned 20th century artist Francis Bacon.

The film begins in 1964 with the artist (played excellently by Derek Jacobi) at the height of his powers; his grotesque figurative paintings have made him a celebrity throughout Europe, and when Bacon isn’t ferociously painting he spends boozy evenings with a Greek chorus of braying upper-class Soho artists and aesthetes.

Burglar George Dyer (quite literally) drops into Bacon’s life one evening, and it’s their torrid and disturbing sexual relationship that becomes Maybury’s focus. Initially intrigued by Bacon’s world and romantic overtures, Dyer quickly becomes overwhelmed by it, his sanity gradually eroded by drink, drugs, and worst of all, Bacon’s infidelity and cruel mind games.

Among all the drunken dinner parties, bitter arguments and kinky sex, Bacon’s actual paintings are conspicuous by their absence: Bacon’s estate, disturbed by what they perceived to be a negative portrayal of the artist, denied permission for any of his work to be depicted in the film. Unperturbed, Maybury decided to shoot Love is the Devil in a style that recalls Bacon’s work; the camera peers at talking heads through the distorting haze of an empty wine bottle, or reflected in the chrome of a kettle, for example. While this is cunning in theory, it only serves to further distance the viewer from the already (largely) unsympathetic characters.

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Like his art, Bacon himself seems mysteriously absent from the film; indeed, I felt no closer to understanding him or his work after the film had ended than before it started. In no way is this the fault of Derek Jacobi – his performance is both convincing and mesmorising – the problems lie with Maybury’s storytelling decisions, which focus on the artist’s more obvious eccentricities (his habit of cleaning his teeth with Vim, or colouring his hair with boot polish) without delving deeper into his past. The most obvious and agonising questions go entirely unanswered: Why was Bacon such a masochist? Why did he subject Dyer to such intense, almost sadistic (if the film is to be believed) psychological cruelty? Bacon’s character is never fully fleshed out, or his actions given any kind of context, reducing him to a freakish caricature with a penchant for champagne and acid-tongued putdowns. 

Admittedly, Daniel Craig is excellent in his first feature role as the tragic, doomed George Dyer – and the film’s sympathies appear to lie so unequivocally with him that Love is the Devil often feels more like Dyer’s biopic than Bacon’s.

While the film isn’t without merit – the performances are uniformly excellent, with Tilda Swinton particularly worthy of note – Maybury’s decision to focus solely on one portion of the artist’s life (less than a decade out of his eighty-one years) and to then depict him as little more than a monster seems desperately unfair. Whether he was indeed a monster or not, Bacon, as one of the most enigmatic and exciting artists of the last century, surely deserves a more balanced biopic than this.

ExtrasAs well as the main feature, this BFI re-release comes with a pleasant smattering of extras, including a commentary with Derek Jacobi and John Maybury, an illuminating interview with the film’s producers and a short documentary about The Colony, the Soho club that Bacon often frequented. There’s also a particularly interesting booklet lurking in the box – a rarity with DVD releases nowadays – with some particularly interesting essays on the artist and the making of the film.

Film:

3 stars
Extras:
4 stars

Rating:

3 out of 5