Films about painters are usually recipes for disaster, primarily because the filmmakers are fans and slap a halo around the object of their adulation. Painters-as-film-subjects have generally fared better than composers-as-film-subjects (while we’re on the subject—we’re still waiting for Martin Scorsese’s long-promised Leonard Bernstein biopic). We can point to successes like Carol Reed’s treatment of Michelangelo, that cast Charlton Heston as the gay dwarf who painted the Sistine chapel (The Agony and the Ecstasy). That outdoes Chopin melodramatically dying at the keyboard of “consumption” in 1945’s A Song To Remember, which whitewashed the composer’s mental and career decline, along with his protracted, agonizing death (possibly from syphilis).
Whether painter or composer, artists tend to have tunnel vision, making them unpleasant bedfellows. Of course, not all artists are guilty—only the good ones. The hacks are innocent, which is why they’re usually forgotten.
No need though to worry about John Maybury’s 1998 opus, Love is the Devil: Study For A Portrait of Francis Bacon, though. It delivers. It’s not merely in the top tier of artist biopics, it’s a remarkable film in itself.
First, an aside about the painter. Francis Bacon emerged as a defiantly figurative painter at a time when abstract expressionism was the fad. He was deemed something of a traitor by the self-professed avant-garde establishment. (If you’re unfamiliar with abstract expressionism, just go to a local McDonalds or J.C. Penny stores and you’ll see plenty of latter-day examples hanging up—but rest assured you’ll never see Bacon’s hideous angst-ridden souls there). Bacon stuck to his guns, becoming one of the most relevant painters of the late century; thankfully, he is unworthy of canonization.
The most striking visual aspect of Maybury’s film was a forced decision. Hypocritically, the Bacon estate was aghast at the script’s unflattering portrait (based in part on Daniel Farson’s biography) of the artist-as-monster, and refused the director the right to use the artwork. Never mind that Bacon himself would have wanted it no other way. What did the estate want? A Hallmark card? The result is a once-in-a-lifetime improvised inspiration. Bacon’s work is never depicted. We only see him in working, which calls to mind Paul Gauguin’s advice to not concern oneself with the finished canvas, but rather concentrate on the act of painting. Cinematographer John Mathieson brilliantly makes up for the production restrictions by shooting the film as if it’s a Bacon canvas, composing it with the painter’s sense of acerbic pigmentation. With distorted lensing, mutated faces are revealed through tumblers, and unflattering extreme closeups show chapped lips exhaling cigarette after cigarette. Drinking, incessant bitching, sucking snails, and dirty sex amidst clutter constitute the social nuances of the figures populating Bacon’s Bohemian landscape. Mathieson’s filters uncannily echo Bacon’s devilish palette, hauntingly choreographed to a corrosive score by Ryuichi Nakamoto, which further augments the film as Bacon’s sadomasochistic skin.
At the heart of Love Is The Devil is a callous relationship. Thief George (Daniel Craig) is interrupted while robbing Bacon’s studio when the painter ( Derek Jacobi) surprises him: “Not much of a thief, are you? Take off your clothes and come to bed. You can have anything you want.”
Two voyeuristic scenes reveal Bacon’s moral bankruptcy. The first depicts the painter in orgasmic state, at a prize fight, when blood from a right-hook splatters his face. It’s the only “money shot” Bacon would have. The second is in a cinema theater with Bacon and a friend transfixed during a viewing of Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1926). The artist almost reaches a Pee Wee Herman moment, ecstatic during the film’s famous scenes of violence. His companion protests, “It’s not Sound of Music.” To Bacon, the human ashtray, yes, it is.
Foreshadowing: Bacon grabs a trash can lid, presses it against the canvas, paints a circle around it, drops the lid and then splatters paint. After growing tired of monogamy, the painter brings a new lover upstairs and locks George outside to hear his betrayal. Abandoned to the gutter, crushed, and powerless, George kicks the trashcan amidst splattering rain.
Aided immeasurably by Christina Moore’s adroit art direction, Mabury pays homage to Bacon’s later, lesser-known canvases in a tetralogy of scenes. In the first, an encircled figure pierces a blackened negative space. Next, a soaked and dejected Craig is framed in a cadmium deep red phone booth. The third scene encapsulates George’s final degradation—the crimson phone booth is now enlarged, engulfing his figure, melting into an inky abyss. In the final scene, a widowed Bacon shuffles over the littered floor, entering a pair of red doors, which leads him into his own cubicle, with George’s spectral latrine for company. Needless to say, these are pitiless fugues.
Naturally, the film depends on the acting of Jacobi and Craig, and both give stellar performances. Jacobi perfects the frigid lynx. When George threatens suicide, his sugar daddy is delighted by the visual idea of a hanging. Suffering is Bacon’s muse. Unwisely, George professes love: “Where do you get your slogans from? Off the television?,” asks the artist. Understandably, George dreams of bloodied beef. Craig reeks of contorted desperation, yet smartly stops short of soliciting our full sympathy. Now a discarded toy, George attempts to exact revenge by planting drugs in Bacon’s residence. When the bobbies announce that a trip to the station is in store, Bacon naughtily smiles, “do you want to handcuff me?”
We are gifted with no pretense of insight into the artist. He remains bleakly enigmatic. While some reviews of the period frivolously harped on this point, the film succeeds wildly in locating Bacon’s nihilistic vision of expressionistic horror. It’s right there in the bathroom mirrors.