Bacon, raw

An unsettling look at a modern master.

About the point when the naked buttocks of two men were writhing on a bed in the midst of darkness, it occurred to me that this film had not been submitted to the film ratings board. Where would they start? Love Is the Devil would be rated NC-17 just for a general air of malaise and corruption.

Love is the Devil

directed by John Maybury

starring Derek Jacobi, Daniel Craig, Tilda Swinton

opens Friday at the Broadway Market

Subtitled "Study for a portrait of Francis Bacon," this first feature from director John Maybury uses both the art and the life of one of the greatest 20th-century painters as inspiration for a gruesome, gorgeous, and deeply empathic meditation on raw human need. Francis Bacon died in 1992, leaving behind a body of unsettling paintings that focused most often on distorted flesh—faces made of sliding tectonic plates, bodies seeming to melt and twist under great pressure. He first gained fame for his series of Screaming Popes, which took a portrait by Velasquez of Pope Innocent X—a painting suffused with order and stateliness—and turned it into a shrieking banshee of existential horror. When his lover George Dyer died of an overdose of pills and alcohol, Bacon made a triptych of Dyer's final pose: sitting on a toilet, slumped over and puking into a sink. Hardly a conventional farewell, but their relationship began when Dyer broke into Bacon's studio with the intent to burgle it; convention was never the affair's hallmark.

Similarly, the movie doesn't follow the usual biographical steps (birth, school, first love, etc.). Instead, it portrays the arc of Bacon's relationship with Dyer in a series of brief scenes that capture the little moments of human interaction—flirting, tenderness, resentment, betrayal—of which daily lives are made. Intercut with these are bantering conversations with Bacon's friends (a small group of caustic heavy-drinking socialites who often modeled for him) and scenes of Bacon painting or, more often, simply staring at a canvas until it seems to defeat him. While the moody laboring of a modern artist may sound unbearably portentous, Derek Jacobi's performance as Bacon gives the film a fantastic vitality and drive. Jacobi sometimes looks uncannily like Bacon, with round jowls, baggy eyes, and a bleak stare both cold and all-embracing. Jacobi captures Bacon's capacity for affection and his selfish need to create art above all else. Love Is the Devil doesn't lead you into Bacon's state of mind; it immerses the audience and lets you steep until you absorb the movie through the skin.

The film grows oppressive toward the end, as Bacon and Dyer's relationship sours. Former petty criminal Dyer practically drowns in Bacon's upper-class milieu, his depressive tendencies exacerbated by Bacon's hot and cold turns and the brittle sniping of Bacon's social circle. When he finally dies, the viewer may share the guilty sense of relief that Bacon seems to feel when he sneers at an acquaintance's condolences. In this movie, as in the paintings, there's no room for sentiment; Bacon perceived the world as brutal but not joyless, and he tried to face up to it as directly as possible. Love Is the Devil admirably does the same.

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