John Maybury’s Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon is an incredibly atmospheric film. Although it has its flaws, Love Is the Devil is memorable for the impression it leaves on viewers.
In the 1960s, renowned artist Francis Bacon catches a burglar in his studio. Rather than call the police, Francis asks the man to come to bed with him. This is the start of a tumultuous love affair between the painter and George Dyer, one that influences Bacon’s work and has a profound affect on Dyer’s mental state…
Love Is the Devil is not a traditional biopic. The film concentrates on a brief period in Bacon’s life, focusing on his relationship with George Dyer. His painting during this period is merely referenced or remarked upon rather than explored in any detail. The film is not about Francis Bacon the artist; it isn’t even about Francis Bacon the man. Instead, it offers a snapshot into the protagonist’s life in this period.
Despite some abstract sequences, Love Is the Devil follows a fairly linear path. Nevertheless, it does not have the same feel as a traditional film. Unlike a conventional biopic, Maybury’s film avoids details and facts about the protagonist’s life and work. It concentrates on emotions, depicting the unruly nature of Francis and George’s relationship. The film almost works like a set of impulses, rather than a coherent strand.
The style and tone of the film are very effective in creating a sense of unease. Segments in the film are disjointed, and overall it is not a comfortable watch. Love Is the Devil seems to have been designed to induce a ambivalent or negative reaction from viewers. The sound in the film is incredibly high-pitched in certain scenes, to the point of discomfort.
Similarly, the whole of the film has a grimy appearance. Bacon’s studio is messy and is often shot in shadowy lighting. The more abstract sequences feature a strong use of colour. Scenes in the various bars and pubs frequently appear distorted. Perhaps this is symbolic of the film itself.
Derek Jacobi is very convincing as Francis Bacon. He offers a commanding performance throughout the film. Daniel Craig is also absorbing as the fragile George, a departure from some of his later roles. Tilda Swinton is gloriously over the top as Muriel.
Love Is the Devil is an interesting watch, but not a particularly comfortable one. Those looking for an alternative to the traditional biopic should seek it out.
Love Is the Devil was shown at the British Film Institute as part of the Screen Epiphanies season. It was introduced by Andy Serkis.