Wednesday 28 June 2017

Love is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon (UK/France/Japan/USA 1998: Dir Jonathan Maybury) - notes from an introduction to a screening of the film at East Dulwich Picturehouse 27 June 2017

When Francis Bacon died in 1992, he was far from the archetype of the reclusive artist who dies in relative obscurity. The ‘towering giant in the wilderness of post war art’ (to slightly misquote Brian Sewell) had lived and loved in the public eye, whether in Soho’s drinking dens, public openings or numerous TV interviews. Bacon’s life was a classic fusion of the high and the low where art and the messy existence of living were inextricably linked.

It was therefore only a matter of time before someone would attempt to capture this life on film.

So when Jonathan Maybury, artist, friend of the art world and a film director who had cut his teeth on underground projects (including partnerships with Derek Jarman) stepped forward to take on the task, it sounded like the director was the ideal selection – Jarman, perhaps THE perfect choice to make the film, had sadly died in 1994.

Originally planned as a BBC production with support from the British Film Institute, LOVE IS THE DEVIL quickly expanded to a big screen project. And here the nerves set in, particularly on the part of the Arts Council for England, who had already agreed funding.

Why the nerves? Well in the six years since Bacon’s death at the age of 83, interest in the artist had grown immensely. He was the subject of three biographies, at least four major posthumous retrospectives and a host of smaller exhibitions. So the prospect of a filmed biography now had a lot riding on it - and this was to be Maybury’s first feature.

Added to this there were concerns that his music video CV (Maybury directed a number of seminal videos including Sinead O’Connor’s ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’) might produce rather lightweight product. Worse, the original plan was to base the film on Daniel Farson’s 1994 biography of Bacon, which is infamous for its detailed anecdotes about Bacon’s hitherto undisclosed sexual preferences – although interestingly the book had only been bought to secure rights for the project. So fearing that Maybury would produce a glossy video style film concentrating on the seedier elements of the painter’s life, assistance from the Bacon estate was not forthcoming, and the Arts Council (whose then chair was Lord Gowrie, a friend of Bacon’s) withheld their proposed grant. The official line was that it was too soon for a Bacon biopic.

Maybury rejected the original script for the film, which he felt was too heavily reliant on the Farson biography, and decided to re-write it himself. The rewrite led funding bodies to rethink their original nervousness, and money was released from the Arts Council and the National Lottery, effectively green lighting the film, albeit with the removal of some of the more creative swearing to appease the Arts Council.

But in other quarters people remained unconvinced: the Bacon estate refused to participate, allowing none of the artist’s work to be used in the film; and David Sylvester, whose published interviews with Bacon are some of the most important writings on the artist, refused for any of his printed words to be used in the script and wanted nothing to do with it. 

Love is the Devil is set between 1963 when Bacon first met the 29 year old George Dyer and 1971 when Bacon’s lover died via an overdose of drugs and alcohol. The film is by no means an attempt to survey the artist’s entire life (indeed it doesn’t cover Bacon’s relationships before and after Dyer), but is instead an attempt to view the world through Bacon’s eyes, through the prism of his relationship with and loss of the thuggish Dyer, who functions both as lover and artistic subject.

Maybury creates a fractured world, full of mirror images, frightening visions, alcoholic gossip in Soho drinking dens, and Bacon’s abiding obsession with his art to the exclusion of all else. The director deliberately shoots in short vignettes, often filmed in long shot or from a height – he has described this approach as being like brushstrokes which, when collected together, produce the final picture. And indeed many scenes in the film are lit and photographed in an approximation of the subjects of Bacon’s absent paintings.

The enforced lack of Bacon’s art in the film is in my opinion a key to its success – it dispenses with the traditional art bio clichés of the creation of great works and is less distracting for it, allowing more room for the intensive and self-destructive relationship between artist and muse to take centre stage. A stark minimal score from Ryuichi Sakamoto adds greatly to the tension.

The performances here are everything. Derek Jacobi as Bacon is stunning. He was not Maybury’s first choice for the painter – that was Malcolm McDowell, who turned the role down – and while Jacobi occasionally looks uncannily like Bacon he is by his own admission not a mimic actor – therefore the Bacon he creates is both a mixture of the painter that we’ve seen in many TV interviews and Jacobi’s own interpretation. Bacon emerges as a manipulative, callous, passionate, highly intelligent and extremely funny man, who never made a secret of his being gay but also relished the secrecy of the scene, particularly in the years before homosexuality was partly decriminalised in 1967 via the Sexual Offences Act. As Maybury has pointed out. Love is the Devil is a ‘homosexual’ film rather than a ‘gay’ film.

Similarly Daniel Craig as George Dyer is a revelation in his first cinematic lead role – he was picked after impressing Maybury and producer Chiara Menage with his performance as Geordie Peacock in the 1996 BBC hit Our Friends in the North. With a minimum of dialogue and a hugely physical performance (a combination that he used with considerable success and a much bigger paypacket in his James Bond role) he is a man on the edge, hopelessly besotted with Bacon but seemingly unable to make eye contact with his lover.

Other actors to watch for are Tilda Swinton as The Colony Room’s founder Muriel Belcher, almost unrecognisable and heavily pregnant at the time of filming. There’s also a blink and you’ll miss it appearance from Antony Cotton (aka Sean from Coronation Street) in his first big screen performance.

As a contribution to ‘Independent Queer Cinema’ Love is the Devil is important, in its presentation of non-heterosexual characters as unashamed outsiders from the rules of conventional society. But the film is more than that – it’s about passion, and passion for art. It’s also from Maybury’s perspective a triumph of ideas over budget, full of terrific creative touches, where necessity demands that a woozy drunken scene is best lensed through the base of a glass ashtray, and the roof of Islington Town Hall stands in for a New York hotel, complete with stars and stripes flag.

Enjoy the film.

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