Arts: The sleazy side of Bacon
Wednesday 09 September 1998
with an East End villain is the subject of John
Maybury's Love is the Devil. Insight into a tortured
mind or plain muckraking?
"WHAT I wanted to do with this film was make a Powell and Pressburger Carry On, which I think I've done," says John Maybury, the director of Love is the Devil.
Francis Bacon, denizen of the late 20th century art world and subject of Maybury's Impressionistic rendering, doubtless would have approved. At home with culture and class at both ends of the spectrum, his work is a crossbreed of the lush and the grotesque: Bacon the man, and the artist, is once more the centre of controversy.
Subtitled "Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon", Maybury's film is no biopic, eschewing most of the painter's 83-year existence in favour of his short-lived and tragic love affair with muse and marginal East End villain, George Dyer. "It's not a film about painting," says Maybury. "If you want to find out about Bacon there are dozens of great documentaries: you can go and watch them. It would have been really pointless to have made a Wilde, for instance. It would have been hugely disrespectful to Bacon, and also to the modernness of his achievements, to do something like that. It needed a more abstract approach to be worthwhile."
Opening, in 1971, with Bacon's triumphant retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris (just as Dyer is fatally cramming pills and booze down his throat in a nearby hotel), the film crawls back through the mire of the late Sixties Soho drinking elite, setting itself for the most part in the squalid Colony Room club, presided over by the frighteningly vile Muriel Belcher.
With Derek Jacobi and Tilda Swinton on hand vividly to bring to life Bacon and Belcher, Maybury sets out to show the dark side of the man: Bacon the sado-masochist, the humiliator, dragging Daniel Craig's Dyer through the gossip and verbal barbs until, as the director puts it, "he just fell apart".
"There was something inherently disruptive in the nature of Bacon's relationships. There is a certain pre-destined inevitability in Dyer's demise. He is almost sacrificed to fertilise the art. By the end, even his sub-conscious no longer belongs to him," says Maybury. That, a decade before, Bacon's previous lover, Peter Lacey, died on the night of the artist's Tate gallery retrospective fittingly satisfies this inexorable wheel of Greek tragedy. A subject, of course, that influenced Bacon's work tremendously.
Preferring to visually represent the Bacon/Dyer dynamic as a shifting canvas, Maybury uses film the way Bacon uses paint. "I wanted to make the film look like Bacon's paintings. His work told us how to design the film: the claustrophobia; the airless rooms with white, lardy English flesh; the cigarette-stained, drink-sodden beings - it's all there."
Such a warts-and-all approach was bound to stir up trouble. Not what the BBC had in mind when hiring Maybury for the project. One executive even ludicrously suggesting the film be given a happy ending. Early script drafts were deemed "prurient"; Malcolm McDowell, Maybury's first choice for the role for over a year, dropped out without reason; the critic David Sylvester denied access to his definitive interviews with the painter.
Lord Gowrie, Chairman of the Arts Council and one-time friend of Bacon, objected to the use of the word "cunty" in the script, insisting on its removal before access to a pounds 250,000 lottery grant would be given (Maybury did so, only to replace it upon shooting). Unsurprisingly, the Bacon estate also refused permission to use his paintings in the film, while Bruce Bernard, brother to Jeffery and one of Lucien Freud's models, maintained that not enough time had elapsed since Bacon's death in 1992 to assess his life properly.
"There is a great sense of ownership over Bacon," says Maybury. "People who had a vested interest in him - whether it be the estate or people who have made careers out of him - wanted to protect their investment. The irony of that is that Bacon was one of the most honest public figures I can think of - about who he was and what he got up to. They didn't want it dug up again. It suits certain people to isolate Bacon from his life, because it's a bit messy. People wanted me to show Bacon as this great intellectual figure."
As for Dyer, Maybury drew a blank from most of the people he spoke to for a character reference: "He was like a cipher. It was like he didn't really exist. The only tangible thing I could grasp was the sort of envy people felt towards him because he was being painted by Bacon. The funny thing is, I underplayed a lot of what went on, but to pretend it did not happen at all would be dishonest."
A hallucinogenic nightmare committed to celluloid, Love is the Devil is as radical in its own way as any of Maybury's previous works. Friend and collaborator with the late Derek Jarman, working as a costume and set designer on Jubilee, and editor on War Requiem and Last of England, Maybury himself has known what it was like to be the darling of the avant- garde. The recipient of retrospectives at the ICA, he produced "dirge- like" Super 8mm essays, alongside work for the Michael Clark dance company and performance artist Leigh Bowery. He supplied designer Rifat Ozbek with a kaleidoscopic tape of his models in lieu of a catwalk presentation, and produced Remembrance of Things Fast, a treatise on Aids and the media.
Fascinated by Bacon's work from his time as a fine arts student at North London Polytechnic, Maybury's film is a reckoning with this past existence. Skirting Bacon's world 20 years ago when first introduced to the Colony Room ("I never met him, I was too terrified"), Maybury's deliberate cameos, from Turner Prize contender Gary Hume to Stella McCartney and Anita Pallenberg, suggest a critique of the art world, as much as of the artist. A world, of course, to which Maybury has attached himself.
"There are people there who are all too ready to rip you to shreds. If you can hold your own in that company, you're one of them," recollects Maybury of the Colony Room. "There's an enormous warmth in that bitchy humour, which I think people have missed. It's not evil, it's inclusive. If they make an effort to be vile to you, it means `Come on in!'" Comparisons between chronicler and chronicled become too tempting: Love is the Devil is an invitation to an exclusive netherworld.
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