Not since "32 Short Films About Glenn Gould" has a movie captured the life of an artist as flawlessly as "Love Is the Devil," John Maybury's portrait of the late Francis Bacon.
Not so much a linear narrative as a series of brief, revealing vignettes, "Love Is the Devil" makes its impact much the way Bacon's paintings did: obliquely, without hitting the subject straight on. Through the subtle powers of allusion, it winds up being more precise in its depiction of its subject than any literal rehashing of the facts of his life.
Derek Jacobi delivers a startling performance as Bacon, whom we meet at the crest of his triumphant career in the art world, receiving a solo exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris in 1971. His lover, George Dyer (Daniel Craig), has just died.
The film proceeds in a flashback, starting when they met (Dyer, a petty thief, crashed through Bacon's skylight) and following their torturous romantic career, which sank into a miasma of drink, drugs and self-destruction.
"Love Is the Devil" will most probably appeal to Bacon's admirers, who will appreciate Maybury's technique. He films much of the movie through half-empty glasses, or in mirrors or metal, creating a wonderful visual echo of Bacon's own distorted, refracted figures and providing eloquent testimony of Bacon's tenacious commitment to realism at a time when abstraction and Expressionism were all the rage.
But even those who are unfamiliar with Bacon's work (none of which is seen in "Love Is the Devil") are encouraged to behold Jacobi in the best performance to be seen on screen right now. Slopping paint on to a canvas with implacable fussiness, spinning out acidic bon mots over cocktails, or applying mascara during his character's morning ablutions, Jacobi doesn't portray Bacon so much as inhabit him, down to the last carefully arranged forelock.
"Love Is the Devil" has a subtitle, "Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon," which would be maddeningly affected if it wasn't so apt. Maybury has revealed the connections between the painter and the man with clarity, economy and unexpected depth.
'Love Is the Devil'
Starring Derek Jacobi, Daniel Craig, Tilda Swinton
Directed by John Maybury
Released by Strand Releasing Unrated(language, some nudity, sexuality)
Running time: 90 minutes
Sun score: ****
Pub Date: 1/15/99