Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Baconrecommended viewing

Intense
★★★★★
☆
Released: 
1998
Director: 
John Maybury
Starring: 
Derek Jacobi, Daniel Craig, Tilda Swinton, Anne Lambton
The Setup: 
An examination of the relationship between painter Francis Bacon and his troubled lover George.
Discussion: 

I think I saw the trailer for this on the disc for Frisk, and it looked quite interesting. Not nearly as interesting as it turned out to be, though.

The movie begins at Bacon’s career-capping retrospective in Paris, during which his lover George committed suicide, and quickly tracks back. George is seen spinning through the air as the credits run, then falling through the skylight into Bacon’s studio: he is a burglar. There are impressionistic flashes of the painting and gay pornography he sees, then Bacon enters and confronts him, asking him to take off his clothes. “Come to bed and you can have whatever you want.” Bacon delivers the first of many speeches about how he’ll play with George for a while, use him, then get rid of him. George is played by a young [but already quite good] Daniel Craig.

The painter and the thug begin a relationship, with Bacon buying George suits and taking him to restaurants and museums. The movie is VERY highly-stylized—we have an entire scene in a bar shot through the blurring effects of distorted glass—but it all works because it is all in the service of telling the story. Bacon is a regular at this bar frequented by an array of tragic queens and their washed-up female consorts, where Bacon is referred to as “her ladyship.” All the queens are trying desperately to be bitchily clever in a way that might make some want to slit their wrists if it weren’t a movie. Bacon brings George to the bar, where he is terribly uncomfortable. When he is alone with Bacon again he says “I like it when it’s just you and me.” The first phases of their relationship are handled with convincing intimacy, and for the first 30 minutes I thought that I had never seen a film capture a gay relationship with such intelligence and accuracy.

At another event, George runs into some friends he knew from his pre-Bacon life, who are appalled to see him with such “poofters.” They warn him to be careful, and “they’ll drop you like a ton of shit when they get finished with you.” I thought it was very interesting, from this comment, that these guys’ problem with gays is that they allegedly don’t maintain relationships with the guys they pick up, rather than any moral issue or thought about damage to ones “Manhood.” Suffice to say George is not at home in Bacon’s milieu and Bacon’s friend think him rather an idiot.

There is a very good wordless scene of the two men undressing, then Bacon gets on the bed and a quite intense SM scene is evocatively hinted at though very discreetly handled. By this time one will have noticed a repeated visual motif of two lamps; one large and one small. Bacon and George? The lightbulb on a cord that features so prominently in Bacon’s paintings is highly notable as well, as is repeated use of a triple mirror that alludes to several of Bacon’s triptych paintings. All of this is done very subtly, without any of the “and THIS is what led to THAT painting” patness that mars so many other biographies of artists.

After an unctuous TV interviewer that I found hilarious [“Why is the figure soooooo important?”] we see that George is beginning to get obsessive, washing his hands compulsively. There is a key scene of Bacon watching George sleep, giving another speech about how he is fascinated by his lover’s torment, implying that he uses it to fuel his own artistic inspiration. Soon after he shows off a bruise beneath his eye that George gave him as a trophy of this intense relationship. We never see Bacon’s paintings, but soon the bloody figures anyone familiar with Bacon’s work will recognize begin to appear in George’s nightmares. George’s nightmares usually involve falling—and we remember that at the very beginning he was shown whirling in space and then fell into Bacon’s apartment. There is an interesting sequence in which George is drunk, then gets up and runs to throw up, presumably in the toilet. In a scene not long after there is a toilet in a painting, and George gets up in the middle of the night and pisses onto the painted toilet.

Bacon meanwhile takes up a muscular blond, and grows increasingly demeaning and hostile to George. He takes George to New York, where George comes close to killing himself by jumping from a building. Bacon is finding it all incredibly tedious by this point. From here it is not long until we return to the Paris opening at the beginning, with George killing himself with pills in their hotel room. His death occurs in a bathroom set made up to specifically made to represent the red room seen in Bacon’s famous paintings of him.

It was very, very interesting. People often write me and question what I mean when I found a film boring, and during this film I was thinking what an excellent example it is of a film that is NOT boring. By that I mean that there is something going on in every shot. Information is being delivered and the story and characters are being advanced. Contrast this with something like The Return, in which long stretches go by where no new information is being communicated, the story and characters are not being furthered, it’s just wasting time. Similarly with something like The Departed, in which after a while we realize that we’re seeing the same scene we’ve already seen, just maybe amped-up a trifle more.

My only complaint is that there is not a lot of connection made between the good phase of their relationship and when it goes sour. They go from a very close, intimate relationship to Bacon’s sour dismissal without offering us much insight into how that happened. George also remains somewhat of a mystery. At the beginning I was wondering how he felt about suddenly having this homosexual relationship and how he processed that [I assume from his friends we see and milieu that he was straight previously]. They seem to be doing fine, their relations with each other are very tender, then all of a sudden George is washing his hands and smoking compulsively, having nightmares, and it only goes downhill from there. What happened? One has the impression of knowing these characters very well at the beginning, but growing more distant from them as the film progresses, until you’re just watching their actions without much insight into why they are doing what they do.

Everyone is good, but Jacobi and Craig are both great. Jacobi in particular is quite convincing in every movement he makes, and he has to go through some very daunting scenes and emotional states. I have no idea what Craig’s orientation is, but his performance shows no evidence of the “I’m acting gay but I’m really straight” distance that holds back so many performances in gay films, and is also free of the “I’m gay and I really want to show how gay people are” attitude that can mar performances by gay actors. Tilda Swinton is also on hand, but so unrecognizable I had no idea it was her until I saw her name in the credits at the end. The director went on to direct The Jacket, which I was wholly uninterested in but now could maybe be convinced to see, as I found his directorial style so rich and packed with content.

That’s it. If you’re looking for a really interesting and challenging gay film, or are interested in Bacon as a painter, this movie proves quite rewarding.

Should you watch it: 

Yes! It’s absolutely fascinating and very ostentatiously stylish, but it all works in the service of the film.