Portrait of the artist as a sexual man

John Maybury brings home the Francis Bacon in Love Is the Devil

"I just find it all so bizarre," notes John Maybury, popping a cigarette into his mouth and lighting it in what appears to be one quick flip of the wrist. "All those issues of 'being out' and 'are you in?' We should have gone beyond that by now. I know it's still an issue, but look--I've been 'out' so long, people want to push me back 'in!'"
An Englishman, Maybury has indeed been "out," in every conceivable sense of the term, for years--first as a collaborator of the late gay avant-garde director Derek Jarman and more recently as a filmmaker and videomaker in his own right (1991's Tunnel of Love; 1992's Man to Man; and Premonition of Absurd Perversion in Sexual Personae, Part 1, also 1992). But then so was the subject of Maybury's new film, Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon. One of the most important visual artists of the 20th century, the Irish-born Bacon--who died in Spain in April 1992 at the age of 83--lived a life so wildly bohemian as to render "in" and "out" labels beside the point. More importantly, there was no mistaking the sexuality inherent in his work--enormous, richly colored canvases of twisted, abject figures that in the words of writer Michel Leiris give the viewer "direct access to an order of flesh-and-blood reality not unlike the paroxysmal experience provided in everyday life by the physical act of love."

"Francis Bacon, along with David Hockney, has always been enormously important to me," says Maybury. "They were the only English artists who had a) operated and existed on an intellectual level of real seriousness, and b) you automatically recognized in their images their sexuality. That's what's so absurd about the problems I've had in making this film. People really did say to me, 'You're going to damage his reputation.' I'm sorry, either you have a really distorted perspective of who I am and what I'm doing, or you have a really distorted picture of Francis Bacon."

Maybury found himself in the position of having to create a film about an artist without showing any of that artist's works. But being a painter himself, Maybury found a way to surmount the seemingly insurmountable. For in telling Bacon's story, the writer-director creates a mise-en-scene that evokes key Bacon works such as Two Figures (1953), Portrait of George Dyer Crouching (1966), and Triptych May-June (1973) in ways that anyone with only a passing knowledge of the artist can instantly recognize.

There are precedents of a sort for this; films as diverse as Performance (1970) and Last Tango in Paris (1973) have evoked Bacon's canvases. Yet none has cut as deeply into Bacon's life and work as Love Is the Devil. Starring Derek Jacobi as Bacon and Daniel Craig as George Dyer, the petty thief who became Bacon's lover and most important model, this crisply made drama gets to the heart of the painter's life and work in a way that only a handful of films about artists have attempted. And Maybury manages to shed needed light on the Bacon-Dyer love affair, which ended with the latter's death from a drug overdose in Paris in 1971 on the eve of an exhibition of Bacon paintings at the Grand Palais in which Dyer was the principal subject.

"Love Is the Devil is a tragedy," Maybury explains over breakfast at a West Hollywood restaurant. "It's not just George's tragedy, it's Francis' tragedy. Still, my covert agenda all the way down the line was that this is the George Dyer story, rather than the Francis Bacon story. If you look at the biographies, even Daniel Farson's The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, on which my film is based, there's virtually nothing about George. There are anecdotes, but as it shows in the film, he's effectively been erased by Bacon's friends. They say he was a kind of troubled, very simple East End guy, with a stutter, and rather strangulated voice. I tried to show something more."

Maybury shows a lot more. His depiction of the Bacon-Dyer relationship echoes the lives and loves of otherwise dissimilar self-destructive gay bohemians such as playwright Joe Orton and filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Dyer met Bacon while the former was burglarizing the latter's London house (the gay S&M "meet cute" of all time). While Dyer played the dominant role sexually, he was subservient to Bacon in every other way, as was the case with Orton's and Fassbinder's lovers. He never fit in with the artist's viper-tongued circle of friends (played in the film by Jarman regulars Tilda Swinton and Karl Johnson), and he wasn't able to establish any sort of life for himself outside of Bacon's orbit. Maybury feels that, unique as the Bacon-Dyer menage may appear at first, it's not all that uncommon in romantic relationships of all sorts.

"The more intense the love, the more incongruous Francis and George become because of the difference between them," he observes. "The more you love someone, in a way, the more you can hurt them--and the more they can hurt you. Dyer's death might have been an accident. Bacon took it as a suicide. When someone chooses to take their own life, I actually respect that. Particularly in recent years with AIDS. Friends of mine have taken their own lives because they didn't want to go on anymore. I respect that. I don't see that as chickening out. It's certainly not the 'easy way out.'

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