'Love is the Devil' captures one crucial decade in the life of the English painter, Francis Bacon, considered by many, for the half century after World War II, the world's greatest living painter. This decade, the 1960s, is reflected through Bacon's relationship with a young hood, George Dyer, whom he first encounters ineptly breaking into his studio, and whom he immediately sleeps with. A depressive suffering constant nightmares, Dyer is wined and dined by the artist, initiated into his bitchily hostile coterie of friends, and gradually neglected as Bacon concentrates on his work. Many of the astonishing paintings from this period evince a great understanding and love of their principle subject, Dyer, and one friend notices that Bacon puts more effort into representing his love on paint than into the relationship itself. Dyer becomes increasingly suicidal.
Bacon has one of the most distinctive oeuvres in the history of art. Although he absorbed many influences, most obviously Picasso and the Surrealists, a Bacon painting is immediately recognisable. For fifty years, his style barely changed, as he concentrated, compressed and developed a recurring set of obsessive motifs - mangled bodies and distorted, often indistinguishable heads and faces, mouths screaming, against restrained, geometric backgrounds, an ordinary English room, a ritual theatre or circus space etc; an alternation between lurid, violent colours and muted, banal ones; props, such as light bulbs, lavatories, mirrors, meat, especially meat. He was very interested in the fragmentation of the image, the disjunction between subject and reflection, for example, or subject and shadow.
Maybury, also an artist, tries to shoot his narrative in the style of Bacon - the film's subtitle, echoing the artist's own non-emotional, mock-technical practice, is 'Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon'. All the motifs are here - the narrative opens with a hand putting a key in a lock as if the film will provide the key to the enigma of Bacon's life. There are many triple-mirror shots of Bacon, alluding to his favourite form, the triptych. Camera effects try to recreate the state of physical distortion, stretching, blurring, splitting, that characterises Bacon's figures. Dyer's first appearance, falling through a skylight into Bacon's studio, is transformed into one of Bacon's despairing fantasies, Dyer suspended in the dark, falling through a lot more than a roof. Specific paintings are recreated, most successfully in the sex scenes, with their violent, combatorial, yet private and intimate rituals. The bar scenes with Bacon's ghastly friends are a grotesque freakshow.
Whether or not this method works - and I don't think it does: film and painting are mutually exclusive media, the transfer from one to the other is often bathetic - Maybury must eventually settle into a narrative if he wants to keep any kind of an audience. Unfortunately, the need to tell stories was precisely the shackle Bacon wanted to cast off. And so there isn't really a narrative, there is no sense of progress in the central characters' relationship, except that Dyer begins it alive and ends it dead. There is no attempt to give the flavour of their life together. The film only really works if you are familiar with Bacon's work. You can spot the allusions and reworkings. But this doesn't lead to any greater understanding of the work, beyond a hackneyed life-informs-the-art model, one Bacon himself strenuously denied.
This solipsism is thoroughly in keeping with Bacon's art. The film is full of his wisdom, narrated by Jacobi, undigestible when just rattled off. As I have suggested the world is made over completely in his sensibility, even the scenes from which he is absent. This sense of claustrophobic privacy is a major effect of the art - there is little difference between the works of the 1940s and 80s, except perhaps for greater technical skill. Maybury misses an opportunity to put history back into Bacon's ahistorical oeuvre, to rescue him from vague expressions of horror and despair. You would have no idea the film was set in the 1960s, no idea about the major social changes of the time, or even the changes in art appreciation (although the film is mercifully free from homosexual-guilt/fear angst). If you have read a biography of Bacon, as I recently have, much of the film will seem jarring in the way watching 'Casablanca' or reading 'Hamlet' is, anecdotes rendered verbatim, adding to the film's unreal, unhelpful atmosphere.