Re-printed from the Cape Times March 18, 1999, without permission.
Dark portrait of passion, obsession.
5 Star rating
With Derek Jacobi and Daniel Craig. Directed by John Maybury
Art in the visual sense and the art of living and loving come together in this superb and challenging film about British artist Francis Bacon and the visceral love between him and George Dyer.
"Real pain for my sham friends, and champagne for my real friends" so says Bacon in one of the many withering one-liners that illustrate the committed engagement with the human condition that is Love is the Devil.
Bacon is visited by a petty burglar, one George Dyer, to whom upon discovering the handsome intruder says to him: "You can take anything you want as long as you come to bed with me."
So starts what at first appears to be quite a gentle relationship between the two men, but which turns subsequently into a catalyst for Bacon's art - he was the first British artist since Turner to be exhibited at Paris' Grand Palais.
Bacon's relationship with Dyer becomes a metaphoric exercise in dealing with society's brutality and the endemic loneliness it engenders. Dyer suffers from crippling nightmares, illustrating Bacon's belief that "we are the prisoners of our dreams".
The creative process and an individual's life become inextricably entwined as Dyer gradually realises that he is used by Bacon as a leitmotif in his art, as a means to delve into the recesses of consciousness: we realise that we are, in fact, prisoners; that we run after illusions of ourselves, of our lives, too fearful to confront our state of painful unknowing, of the demons that lurk in our souls, in our urges.
We conform to societal notions of ourselves at the expense of living life with a measure of authenticity, of living and celebrating the individuals we are.
"I'm an optimist about nothing," says Bacon, illustrating his courageous stance of stripping life of all its psychological crutches and creating something out of the resultant void.
All this comes across graphically and philosophically in this richly stylised and textured examination of Bacon's life. His treatment of Dyer is execrable: he humiliates him in public and uses him for his masochistic sexual escapades, untouched it would seem by Dyer's apparent love for him, which drives Dyer to suicide.
Dyer does not live life on Bacon's plane and isn't equipped emotionally or intellectually to understand that, for Bacon, being an artist is more important than devoting his life to his lover.
Love is the Devil leaves one with more questions than answers. Did Bacon really care for Dyer?
There's enough to suggest he was capable of love. But the very notion of love is called into question: is it mere self-interest and mutual exploitation or a tawdry dependency syndrome which is what Dyer lapses into in the movie. Other elements peripherally explored are class issues: the patently upper-crust Bacon likes "rough trade" a la Anthony Blunt.
Does exploitation not play a role in the pursuit of art and highly prized and priced engaging images? (Here one could also take another look at the social issues raised in A Kind of Hush, a movie which, while seductively coming across as championing the plight of society's underdogs, is ultimately homophobic and Fascistic).
Love is the Devil is an honest and superbly crafted engagement with life, creativity and passions couched too in scintillating dialogue. Not to be missed.