The Big Picture: Just blood, sweat and fears

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The Independent Culture




FRANCIS BACON never ventured into film, though his work was informed by cinematic possibilities, and cinema could happily be inhabited by his spirit. He's there in Last Tango in Paris, where his paintings are employed to usher in the mood of disquiet, while Donald Cammell admitted to arranging Bacon-esque compositions for Performance. The artist's own tastes were raw and eclectic. It was said that he harboured a passion for the Rocky series - for its hyperbolic amplification of the wet, leathery thwack of fist on flesh.

This suggests a romantic fusion of art and man, but Love is the Devil, John Maybury's film about Bacon, goes one step further. It mixes up his life and work as though the two were squiggles of paint on a palette, combined to achieve a pungent, unfamiliar new shade.

Love is the Devil distances itself from the territory of tortured artist biopic by virtue of its modest subtitle - Study for a portrait of Francis Bacon. While the film has discernible momentum, charting the dismal trajectory of the relationship between Bacon (Derek Jacobi) and George Dyer (Daniel Craig), his lover of seven years, it is closer to a collection of sketches or brief nightmares, each ending on an ambiguous cut or a tantalising fade-out. This is Maybury's first feature, though his experience as an experimental film and video artist, not to mention former collaborator with Derek Jarman, has taught him to search out the soul of a subject without being cramped by narrative demands.

Cinema has never been shy of investigating homosexual desire provided that it all ends in tears, and preferably blood and sweat too, but Love is the Devil will frustrate those audiences seeking another Killing of Sister George or Prick Up Your Ears because it withholds explicit data on its characters' pathology.

This sparseness backfires only once, when a passing reference to Bacon's relationship with his father gives no indication of the regime of horrific abuse which passed for paternal affection. Mostly, the paucity of information effectively reduces love to appetite - a hunger for hunger's sake. George simply tumbles into Bacon's studio while botching a burglary. Bacon invites him to bed. The next thing you know, they have assumed the positions of a married couple: one languishing in the bath, the other poised at the shaving mirror. True, they don't lunch with the in-laws or trundle around the Co-op together, but they share their own quaint, comforting rituals. Bacon kneels by the bed, and George lashes him with a belt. Lit cigarettes are also involved.

As with any great love affair, there is an ugly clash of backgrounds. Bacon lounges around in drinking clubs with an entourage of cackling, upper-class show-offs led by Muriel Belcher, whom Tilda Swinton plays as someone trapped midway through a transformation into a werewolf. George has his own surrogate family of Brylcreemed East End gangsters, and it's a sweet touch that these minor Krays should be the only ones to express concern about George falling in with the wrong crowd.

Daniel Craig's portrayal of this hopeless boy clambering after manhood is a glorious mess of poignant contradictions. George is a thug whose means of survival suddenly count for nothing in his new social circle. He quickly realises that if you slit the throat of one of Bacon's taunting friends, you'll be judged not on the efficiency with which you make the incision, but whether you've selected the correct knife.

The realisation imprisons George; when self-consciousness pervades this most fundamental level of behaviour, instinct is snuffed out. In fact, the film is full of images of imprisonment, self-imposed or otherwise. A recurring feature is the crane shot in which the camera slowly rises to peer down on Bacon from the top of a room which had appeared to be of normal dimensions but is actually revealed to resemble a cell.

For Cocteau, the mirror was a magical gateway to other dimensions, but in Maybury's film it traps those whose likenesses it bears. Many of the shots are composed as fractured or multiple reflections in mirrors and silverware, or distorted images spied through the curve of a brandy glass. Maybury was refused permission to incorporate Bacon's paintings in the movie, yet this restriction has granted him an unexpected freedom. Set alongside examples of the artist's own work, the film's evocation of its essence might appear tame. On their own, Maybury's approximations of Bacon's grotesquely beautiful style create the sensation of the celluloid being infected by the art, as though the film stock had been left too close to one of Bacon's canvases.

This goes for Derek Jacobi too. He bears an eerie physical resemblance to Bacon - the eyes dead but for an occasional spasm of rage or lust, the face puffed as though from a jellyfish sting. He's very good at translating Bacon's sexual and creative restlessness into physical movement too, and the actor is helped here by Maybury, who often simply fixes the camera on him like a spotlight, magnifying every twitch and squirm.

The movie is not so much filmed from Bacon's perspective as shot through the hairs of his paintbrush, just as A Man like Eva or Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters scrutinised their respective subjects through the fabric of their art.

At a boxing match, Bacon is elated by the collision of bodies and the spray of sweat; when a plume of blood is splashed across his face, he releases an ecstatic gasp, his expression mirroring the shot of the wounded nurse from Battleship Potemkin which had earlier inspired him. At other points, Maybury plays violently blurred close-ups in stuttering slow-motion to echo the thrashing, fleshy chaos of Bacon's painting. It might seem paradoxical for the moving picture to struggle to replicate the effect of a portrait, but Bacon's work was charged with a physicality that doesn't so much lend itself to cinema as test the medium's mettle.

It is fitting that Love is the Devil seems to be unfolding within a Bacon canvas given Maybury's eloquent argument that both the artist and his model were trapped inside the work. There is no governing reality. Even outside the cluttered studio, there is a heightened artificiality which the real world cannot penetrate. During a television interview, the studio camera zooms into Bacon's bloated mouth as though suddenly possessed by an attack of Baconitis.

It could be that Maybury plays his trump card too early, during a scene of Bacon plotting the composition of a new painting. He picks up a battered dustbin lid, paints around it and then turns to face us, wearing the lid on his arm while wielding a dripping paintbrush in the other hand. The makeshift sword and shield provide a piercing metaphor for a man whose art both reflected his world and protected him from it.