Feb 6, 2014
Before becoming super pseudo-suave British secret agent James Bond in 2006 and having women all around the world swooning and wetting their panties over him, English leading man Daniel Craig (Road to Perdition, Munich) portrayed sub-literate gutter-grown hustler-like sodomites, or at least he did in the somewhat under appreciated film Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon (1998) directed by queer Brit auteur John Maybury, a man probably best known in America for directing the semi-interesting psychological thriller The Jacket (2005) starring Adrien Brody. A sort of experimental melodramatic biopic about gay Irish-born English figurative painter Francis Bacon and his dark and destructive romance with a young, uncultivated criminal thug from the East End of London, Love Is the Devil depicts in quasi-figurative fashion how the painter’s torrid and torturous relationship would give birth to his greatest and mostly internally tormented artistic creations. Not unlike the men German New Cinema auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder would date, Dyer was in many ways Bacon’s inferior and the former would develop a deep dependence for the latter that ultimately resulted in suicide when the painter became fed up with his tragic beau’s needy behavior. Maybury’s first feature-length work as a filmmaker, Love Is the Devil is not only an aesthetically audacious work that attempts to seamlessly synthesize Bacon’s biographical details with the aesthetic essence of the painter’s oeuvre, but also features a completely complimentary and fiercely foreboding original score by Japanese composer/actor Ryuichi Sakamoto, who got his start in film composing the score and acting in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983) directed by Nagisa Oshima and would later earn an Academy Award and Grammy Award for his score for The Last Emperor (1987) directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. Although it probably does not say much, Love is the Devil is certainly as fine and immaculate as biopics about artists come, though I doubt middle-aged Daniel Craig fangirls will enjoy this aesthetically apocalyptic and delightfully disconcerting flick that depicts nothing short of one artist’s internal metaphysical hell. Based on the authorized biography The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon (1994) by the artist’s personal friend Daniel Farson, Love Is the Devil depicts a decidedly degenerate yet undeniably hardworking painter who enjoyed dressing in drag as a flapper as a teen, spent his early adult years reading Nietzsche and supporting himself by petty theft and rent-dogging, and would ultimately develop into a world famous painter who rather enjoyed being buggered in the bum by low-class young men.
It is the year 1964 and proletarian petty criminal George Dyer (Daniel Craig) has just broken into a flat he plans to rob but he is clearly not a genius and after noticing what seem like thousands of visceral paintings, Hitler photographs, and pictures of various corpses that adorn the home, he becomes quite stunned and is soon rather bizarrely greeted by the tenant, who appears slowly from a door and states in a rather stern fashion, “And who might you be? You’re not much of a burglar, are you? Take you clothes off! Come to bed…and you can have whatever you want.” The owner of the home is poof painter Francis Bacon (played by queer actor Derek Jacobi in a role Malcolm McDowell once displayed interest in taking on) and Mr. Dyer accepts the exceedingly effete artist’s strange but generous offer. Ultimately, Bacon comes to love Dyer due to a combination of two seemingly contradictory qualities, ‘amorality’ and ‘innocence.’ While Dyer’s sleazy urban peasant friends attempt convince him that Bacon and his clique will “drop you like a ton of shit when they're done with you,” the small-minded, small-time con believes he is in control and the one with the capacity to ‘push the buttons’ when it comes to his relationship with his much more quick witted and callous partner. Of course, as Dyer learns soon enough, Bacon does not always give the intended response when one pushes his buttons. Bacon is a proud ‘bottom’ as demonstrated by his confession, “Submitting entirely to the service and pleasure of a dominant partner is, I find, a catharsis in that all responsibility is relinquished…every move is dictated. No decisions are your own. You exist solely for the service and pleasure of another man,” but he also becomes a strong father-figure and mentor of sorts for Dyer, at least when the two are not engaging in sadomasochistic sex. Since the painter surrounds himself with pretentious art fags, fag hags, and bull-dykes (one of whom states she likes “carpet-munching and nothing else”), meager yet masculine Dyer is mostly rejected by Bacon’s preposterously pompous ‘Soho’ clique. For example, photographer John Deakin (played by Karl Johnson, who is best known for his roles in Derek Jarman’s The Tempest (1979) and Wittgenstein (1993)), whose photos Bacon based a number of his paintings on, is quite jealous of Dyer and even has the gall to snidely ask the small-time con, “still posing as a sodomite?” while in the company of numerous individuals at a bar. Of course, Bacon defends Dyer by pouring a cup of alcohol over Deakin’s head and remarking, “Champagne for my real friends, real pain for my sham friends,” but such uncommon loyal between men from very different classes and cultural backgrounds does not last for long.
Naturally, like many one-sided relationships, breadwinner Bacon becomes rather weary of Dyer’s needy dependence and begins cheating on his boyfriend and locking him out at night. After all, how could Bacon respect a man who does not understand the art of Jean Cocteau, let alone his own art? Somewhat paradoxically, as Bacon and Dyer’s relationship deteriorates, the more the former begins to use the latter as the central subject of his paintings. As Bacon’s friend Isabel Rawsthorne (Anne Lambton) notes, “The pictures of George are like exquisite love poems. You seem to put more into the work than the relationship itself and ultimately you suffer just as much.” In terms of Bacon’s philosophy of art, he remarks to Isabel, “There is no beauty without the wound. Lucifer was the most beautiful angel…that was his fatal flaw,” and indeed, visceral pain and internal suffering become the hallmark of the artist’s work. The more Dyer is rejected by his lover, the more he attempts to mimic Bacon’s behavior, which includes treating handsome young twinks to lavish dinners and gifts, and living a melancholy life of incessant alcoholism where a cure for a hangover is to merely imbibe yet again. To get Bacon’s attention, Dyer plants his own marijuana in Bacon’s house and calls the cops on him, thus resulting in the painter’s arrest and causing him bad press. Of course, Dyer’s actions only further push Bacon away, but the painter keeps painting his favorite subject. When both men travel to Paris in October 1971 for a retrospective of the painter’s work at the Grand Palais, things take a predictable turn for the worse. On the eve of the retrospective, Bacon and Dyer argue with one another in a hotel room they share together and when the latter states, “I love you Francis,” the painter replies with the sadistically snide remark, “Where do you get your slogans from George, off the television?” in what will be the final straw that breaks the camel's back for the destructive relationship. Needless to say, Dyer commits suicide by taking a killer cocktail of barbiturates and alcohol and Bacon, seemingly unphased by the tragic turn of events, continues to give the retrospective.
As a painter who once cited Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) as key catalysts to inspiring his own artistic creativity, it is only fitting that someone would direct an experimental biopic about Francis Bacon and luckily Love Is the Devil is a rather worthwhile one that neither sentimentalizes nor glorifies the artist, but portrays him as a patently perturbed individual whose infernal internal pain and sexual perversity were the very source of his rather grotesque genius. Clearly a cinematic work that was more influenced by painting, most specifically those of Francis Bacon himself, than actual cinematic works, Love Is the Devil is a painter's film and I say that as a cinephile and not as someone familiar with the film’s subject’s oeuvre. That being said, Love Is the Devil is certainly a rare cinematic work that, unlike contrived Hollywood works centering on famous creative individuals like Amadeus (1984) directed by Miloš Forman, Basquiat (1996) directed by Julian Schnabel, and The Rum Diary (2011) directed by Bruce Robinson, made me want to dig deeper into the subject’s work. Indeed, I got the sense while watching Love Is the Devil that in some rather harsh and hermetic way that Francis Bacon’s work embodies a certain discernible despair, chaos, and insanity of the Occidental soul and collective unconscious, specifically that of the British. As the late great British ‘New Right’ political figure, author, and painter Jonathan Bowden (a man who once told an interviewer to think of him as a “heterosexual version of Francis Bacon”) once wrote about Mr. Bacon in his book Skin, “Francis Bacon’s work . . . is an attempt to find an image that will explain the 20th century to itself. His support for the Right, on the other hand, is an attempt to further the artistic process. Basically, if the Right guarantees inequality, as it does, then the distinctiveness of the artistic personality is preserved. The fragility of the artistic ego is safeguarded by the social inequality that the Right safeguards. In short, the Right guarantees the importance of an artist, his inherent superiority, by virtue of the fact that it upholds order. As a consequence, the artist always prefers hierarchical inequality to humanitarian anarchy—as Louis-Ferdinand Céline once put it.” Indeed, Bacon was certainly a dictator of emotions who understood power and inequality and who ruled his friends, most notably George Dyer, with an iron-fist that ultimately resulted in both aesthetic and literal deaths. Not just a biopic about a famous artist, Love Is the Devil is also a psychodrama about the forsaken artistic soul and is thus mandatory viewing for anyone with an interest in 20th century Occidental art and/or a love of cinema as an art.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 7:43 PM
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