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Francis Bacon (Derek Jacobi) looks with much disdain but little surprise at the glowering, leather-jacketed thug (Daniel Craig) who has literally fallen into Bacon’s studio. “And who might you be?” the great painter inquires grandly. From his first moments on screen, Jacobi plays Bacon like a bohemian Norma Desmond, another queen of a self-made realm who needs a still human surface in which to reflect (her first line is “You down there!”). For Bacon, that surface was handsome minor criminal George Dyer, and in John Maybury’s selective retelling of Bacon’s life—he also wrote the script—it was Dyer’s murky depths that did in both the muse and the relationship.

If the scenes and characterizations in Love Is the Devil are anything close to biography (friends of the late artist claim they are), Bacon’s life is a difficult one to recount in today’s atmosphere of stereotype-busting. For all his towering, undisputed genius, Francis Bacon was in many ways a trite figure and a drearily recognizable product of his times. A witty, gimlet-tongued, tormented man, a brilliant painter, an over-the-hill homosexual trying to maintain a balance of power in a relationship with a handsome bit of rough—what of this haven’t we seen before? But the film presents these stereotypes without apology or rationalization; the very directness of Jacobi’s characterization and the gritty, intelligent language of the script transcend the clichés they embody.

Jacobi could be playing a character from a ’50s dime novel, but when the film opens, it’s the ’60s, and Bacon knows just what he looks like to the outside world. So his little vanities are part public defiance, part private ritual, all achingly human. He brushes his teeth with bleach, touches up his hair with shoe polish, and won’t leave the house without a dusting of powder. While brutish stud George perches on the edge of the bathtub complaining about the profusion of knives at a fancy dinner, Bacon laughs indulgently and scrubs his own dishes.

Bacon swans his new paramour around town, gets him suited up at a fancy clothier’s (more shades of Sunset Boulevard: “As long as the lady is paying…”), blatantly cheats on him, bestows kindness and cruelty in carefully measured counterpoint. The famous and admired painter plays these dictatorial games from under his mask, dismissing Dyer with a precious little shrug, slurring his bons mots, and otherwise indulging in all the gestures of the mid-century queer canon. The film is structured like Stephen Frears’ 1987 Prick Up Your Ears, tracing a circular arc of destruction and longing from the night of Dyer’s death, through the principals’ meeting and tortured time together, and back to the night in question.

Dyer inspired many of Bacon’s greatest works, especially the horrified, wonderfully tender triptych (May-June 1973) painted after Dyer’s death, but the film uses none of Bacon’s paintings. Rather, Maybury has taken upon himself the difficult task of lighting, editing, and composing his film to depict an experience of life, the artistic expression of which could look no other way than Bacon’s thick, bloody, finely balanced, and beautifully composed paintings. The unpleasant banter of the parvenus and art-world grotesques who hang around the Colony Room pub is seen and heard through the distorting bowls of wine glasses, with figures blurred on the edges of the lens’ “canvas.” The pub denizens that inspired and encouraged Bacon are brought vividly to life in their few scenes: Tilda Swinton and Anne Lambton look more like Muriel Belcher and Isabel Rawsthorne than the originals, judging from the photographs in Daniel Farson’s book, The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, upon which this film is based. They may have been the photographers, models, writers, and bons vivants of their day, but Maybury distorts them, populating the pub with asymmetrical faces; hideous English teeth; lank, greasy hair; and garish coloring.

In this livid environment, Dyer looks almost unnaturally meaty and healthy—a paradoxically accurate distinction, since he is later shown to be nothing but meat—the red-blooded inspiration for the vain old artist’s depictions of the psychological abattoir. The pleasures in which the lovers indulge are ugly, raw, grainy: Before lovemaking, they disrobe headlessly (thanks to Maybury’s selective camera) in ghastly greenish light; they attend dinners with the Colony Room crowd in a claustrophobic bare space where raw oysters, still-moving lobsters, and dirty stories sully the table. (Photographer Joel-Peter Witkin’s contributions to the aestheticization of polluted food have been minutely observed.)

The hearty young thug Dyer takes to this psychic rot and cold-hearted chitchat because it echoes the horror he carries within him like a disease. Dyer suffers from vivid premonitions of his own death and debilitating nightmares—he dreams like a dog, twitching and snuffling—but his fears are pooh-poohed by his resilient older lover. These premonitions are a corny trick but effectively utilized here, and anyone familiar with Bacon’s work will recognize the iconographic expressions of Dyer’s fears—the plank off of which he tumbles, red and naked; the oppressive arrangement of lines that encloses him; the platform that displays his sexual play-acting to the world.

Maybury uses red in big, scary splashes and paradoxical decorative touches—a London telephone booth, satin hotel bedspreads, the spurting blood of a boxer’s face, the sight of which makes Bacon writhe in ecstasy. It’s the most frightening and subliminal use of red since Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, but earthier, darker, and more painterly.

It isn’t just the inarticulate Dyer who’s haunted: For Bacon’s contemporaries, the big scare of World War II hangs heavy. They make frequent, brittle references to Hitler and the blitz—”Welcome to the concentration of camp” is how Bacon introduces the Colonials to Dyer—in effect whistling past the graveyard of these all-too-recent ravages. Love Is the Devil is an entirely haunted film, which is its finest aspect. It isn’t only Francis Bacon the quotidian person who carries the story—although he is present, shaving in the three-sided mirror cherished by any painter of triptychs—but the shadow of that dated notion, aesthetic magnitude: great art wrought from great love, great pain, and a great big war. Love Is the Devil shows Bacon going about his business with a coterie of indistinct apparitions hanging over the messy, meaty, riveting portrait of these few vital years—memories of large-scale destruction, premonitions of individual death, the inevitable death of love, and the ironic knowledge that Bacon’s greatest work and most powerful legacy to the world is the product of all that horror.CP