Love Is the Devil
A Film Review by James Berardinelli
United Kingdom, 1998
U.S. Release Date: beginning 10/98 (limited)
Running Length: 1:30
MPAA Classification: No MPAA Rating (Sex, nudity, violence)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Cast: Derek Jacobi, Daniel Craig, Tilda Swinton, Anne Lambton, Adrian Scarborough, Karl Johnson,
Director: John Maybury
Producer: Chiara Menage
Screenplay: John Maybury
Cinematography: John Mathieson
Music: Ryuichi Sakamoto
U.S. Distributor: Strand Releasing
Francis Bacon is undoubtedly one of the twentieth century's most celebrated artists. His bleak,
disturbing paintings display an intimate relationship with the darker side of life – a constant
probing of the horrors of existence that most men and women shy away from. Bacon's brilliance
lies in his ability to unflinchingly depict the most grotesque aspects of the human experience. In
attempting to bring a segment of Bacon's life to the screen, writer/director John Maybury has
adopted a cold, distant tone that effectively captures the painter's world-view while keeping the
audience at arm's length. (Curiously, none of Bacon's paintings appear during Love Is the
Devil since the artist's estate refused permission for them to be used.) However, despite
brilliant performances by both lead actors, Love Is the Devil is paradoxically both
intriguing and uninvolving. It's what I like to call an interesting failure.
Love Is the Devil transpires in London during the late-1960s and early-1970s. It tells of
the unlikely seven-year affair between Bacon (Derek Jacobi) and a lower-class burglar named
George Dyer (Daniel Craig), and, in its best moments, echoes Stephen Frears' brilliant Prick
Up Your Ears. The overall story – about how the homosexual relationship with Bacon
destroys Dyer – is relatively static, but there are several interesting subtexts, such as the
connection between art, obsession, and cruelty, and the ability of love to manifest itself in such a
damaging form. Unfortunately, there's not a great deal of new material in Love Is the
Devil. We've seen this kind of story – about the sordid life of a great artist – many times in
the past, so much of this movie seems to be covering familiar ground.
The first image presented to us is of Bacon smelling the pillow where a lover slept. It is perhaps
the most evocative moment of the film. Soon, the artist is surprising Dyer in the act of breaking
into his studio. Instead of summoning the police, Bacon orders Dyer to undress and join him in
bed, promising that he can take anything he wants later. Once in Bacon's life, Dyer never leaves.
For a while, the painter treats his new lover with respect and affection, but, eventually, he begins to
tire of him, and the less Bacon needs him, the more desperate Dyer becomes, resorting to suicide
attempts. The end is perhaps inevitable.
One of the film's greatest detriments could easily have been one of its greatest assets, if director
John Maybury had exercised a little restraint. His visual style is distinctive, but he doesn't know
the meaning of the word subtlety, and a provocative approach turns into overkill. Maybury is fond
of using odd camera angles, quick cuts, and distorted views of the characters to emphasize how
skewed Bacon's world is. Good idea; bad execution. In the end, it seems like Maybury is more
interested in advertising his uniqueness and versatility as a director than in making a stirring movie.
He's showing off, and it hurts the film.
The thing that almost saves Love Is the Devil is Derek Jacobi's performance. Jacobi, the
only actor capable of challenging Ian McKellan as the best Shakespearean thespian of this
generation, is so good as Bacon that it's frightening. Jacobi is mesmerizing, and, when he's on
screen, it's difficult to turn away. Daniel Craig is frequently lost in Jacobi's shadow, but never
fully eclipsed. Craig does a credible job portraying Dyer as he traverses the uncertain emotional
territory from a tough burglar to a weak-willed, clinging parasite. Tilda Swinton has a supporting
role as the proprietress of a drinking club that Bacon frequents.
Love Is the Devil is constructed almost like an impressionist painting: it's comprised of
numerous vignettes that, when pieced together and viewed from a distance, represent a larger
image. However, what works well on a canvas doesn't necessarily translate to the screen, and this
method occasionally makes the movie seem disjointed. Combined with Maybury's stylistic
flourishes, it's enough to prevent the viewer from ever connecting with either Dyer or Bacon. We
watch them from a detached perspective, observing their actions with curiosity, but never
identifying with them or being drawn into their world. Although, considering Bacon's nihilistic
perspective of life ("I'm optimistic about nothing," he says more than once, and he means it),
perhaps that, like the movie as a whole, isn't all bad.
© 1998 James Berardinelli