Love Is the Devil
1998, NR, 90 min. Directed by John Maybury. Starring Derek Jacobi, Tilda Swinton, Anne Lambton.
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., Dec. 4, 1998
The late Francis Bacon was one of the most important English painters to emerge since World War II. He was also, it seems, a fairly nasty piece of work: a vain, imperious, old queen who drank hard, verbally abused his friends, and treated his blue-collar boy toys like dirt, cruelly ridiculing them for the same rough-edged qualities that drew him to them in the first place. Like many films about artists, Love Is the Devil behaves much as a gossipy museum guide, handing out program notes that explain the subject's historical significance while also dishing intimate tidbits that purport to shed extra light on his creative output. Though forbidden by Bacon's estate to show any of his work, writer-director Maybury suggests very effectively the troubling, hallucinatory character of his art, which seemed to regard the human body with an odd mixture of visceral loathing and clinical detachment. We're unsurprised, then, to learn of Bacon's rather exotic sexual nature -- specifically his fevered S&M enthusiasms which ranged from the usual human- ashtray jollies to (in one of the film's rare humorous moments) fondling himself while watching the baby stroller crash downstairs in Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin. These scenes establish a clear link between the dark, disturbed feel of Bacon's pictures and the casually abusive way we see him treating his petty hoodlum boyfriend George (Craig) in the film's main plotline. Jacobi, with his pale, larval face and slack expression, is chillingly effective as Bacon, playing him as a dead soul who relies on ritualistic acts of kink and depravity to whip himself into creative reveries. Craig is likewise believable (often heartbreakingly so) as a simple bloke who's too slow on the uptake to grasp the Trick's Prime Directive: Get it while you can, then break clean. But does the recognizability of this situation amount to a compelling rationale for a movie? For me, the answer is no. I see no particular reason to sit through this banal (though imaginatively shot) 90 minutes of mechanistic sex, cold-blooded exploitation, and Valley of the Dolls-like melodrama if it adds nothing to what we can readily glean from viewing Francis Bacon's work. Unlike Prick Up Your Ears and Velvet Goldmine, which portray the sexuality of their artist subjects as crucial elements of their public personae, Love Is the Devil feels merely sad and trivial, like a session of halfhearted keyhole-peeping. Art history buffs may find some interest in a handful of vivid scenes set in Soho's Colony Room bar, where Bacon was part of a motley “salon” of slumming highbrows and indigenous lowlifes. The prodigiously versatile Tilda Swinton (Female Perversions, Orlando) also checks in with a small, savory role as Colony Room proprietor Muriel Belcher. Other than that, however, it's pretty slim pickings for anyone who doesn't view Zoloft, head-to-toe black attire, and exquisitely calibrated emotional despond as proof of artistic integrity.