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Love Is the Devil (1998)

British Film Institute

Main image of Love Is the Devil (1998)
DirectorJohn Maybury
Production CompaniesBBC Films; Première Heure; BFI Production Board
Written byJohn Maybury
Co-writersJames Cohen
 Don Jordan
CinematographyJohn Mathieson

Cast: Derek Jacobi (Francis Bacon); Daniel Craig (George Dyer); Anne Lambton (Isabel Rawsthorne); Karl Johnson (John Deakin); Annabel Brooks (Henrietta Moraes); Adrian Scarborough (Daniel Farson); Tilda Swinton (Muriel Belcher)

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A biographical portrait of the life of British painter Francis Bacon, with particular focus on his relationship with petty criminal George Dyer who became his lover.

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Love Is The Devil is a fascinating example of British art cinema which is also about the process of creating art. Director John Maybury was an associate of the late Derek Jarman, and his experience of avant-garde filmmaking is clearly incorporated into this distinctive 'biopic' of the painter Francis Bacon, here played with uncanny accuracy by Derek Jacobi. But unlike its near contemporary Wilde (d. Brian Gilbert, 1996), Love Is The Devil is certainly no glossy, heritage-friendly take on the life and times of a great artist.

The film's provocative sexual content and willingness to delve into the less attractive aspects of Bacon's flamboyant personality made this a controversial project, even in its very early stages. Maybury had received vital support from BBC Films and the BFI's Production Board under Ben Gibson, but when Gibson applied to the Arts Council of England for a substantial National Lottery investment he was initially unsuccessful. Newspaper reports suggested that Lord Gowrie, chairman of the Arts Council and a friend of Bacon's, had personally vetoed the award because of the film's 'prurient' approach and lack of historical distance from its subject, who had died only a few years before. Eventually these reservations were overcome and the film's credits do indicate the support of the Arts Council. But the organisation's remit, to uphold the national reputation of the arts, sits uncomfortably alongside this film's dark and difficult version of art history.

Probably for similar reasons, Maybury was denied access to Bacon's violent and disturbing pictures by his estate. Instead, the film ingeniously recreates motifs and compositions from the artist's work in cinematic terms. Thick, curved glass filters twist and distend the figures on screen, bodies are trapped within strange geometric shapes, or refracted by mirrors into widescreen triptychs. Within the narrative, the nightmarish quality of Bacon's oeuvre is contained inside the troubled mind of George Dyer (Daniel Craig), an East End petty crook who became Bacon's lover, tormentor and model for an extended period during the 1960s. Dyer's outward strength and inner fragility make him the perfect tragic muse; he is dissected and ultimately destroyed by the artist's penetrating gaze. But the film holds back from a sentimental approach to Dyer's suicide, presenting his death in enigmatic fragments wilfully reminiscent of Bacon's imagery. Love Is The Devil therefore represents a rare cinematic victory for the aesthetic over the emotive.

James Caterer

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Video Clips
1. A bomb exploding in reverse (2:31)
2. Going steady (2:53)
3. Optimistic about nothing (2:47)
4. 'Loser' tattooed on my heart (3:16)
Production stills
Craig, Daniel (1968-)
Jacobi, Sir Derek (1938-)
Swinton, Tilda (1960- )
The BFI Production Board: The Features
They Started Here