When George Dyer, amateur boxer and part-time burglar, breaks in through the skylight of a painter’s studio in Swinging London, it is his misfortune that the artist is most definitely in residence. ”Take your clothes off,” says Dyer’s intended victim, who turns out to be the painter Francis Bacon, ”come to bed, and you can have whatever you want.” So begins the tortured love affair between Bacon, the late 20th century’s premier visual interpreter of charnel house romance, and the younger man who would become his muse, model, and millstone. Dyer’s three roles make up a miserable triptych in Love Is the Devil, a first feature by British writer-director John Maybury, who may be most familiar to American audiences for directing Sinéad O’Connor’s ”Nothing Compares 2 U” video.
At the outset of this sharp, unconventional biopic, it is hard to say which of these two men is lonelier, lustier, or more predatory. Derek Jacobi, as Bacon, is a small, doughy-faced man with a wicked, hungry gleam in his eye, whether he’s brushing a bit of dye into his hair or happily jerking off in a movie theater (at a screening of The Battleship Potemkin, one of the movie’s more perverse jokes). Dyer may look tough, but as played by the muscular, silver-eyed Daniel Craig, star of the PBS miniseries Moll Flanders and The Ice House, he is a fragile soul who suffers from drink- and drug-fueled nightmares, and quickly becomes dependent, financially and emotionally, on the more mature man. As Bacon allows his lover an entrée into his swank, bohemian world, he also belittles and ignores him, permitting his snide friends, like a bar owner played by Tilda Swinton (rendered unrecognizable by a set of hideously effective prosthetic teeth), to treat Dyer like a gorgeous but mildly retarded lapdog.
Though Maybury was denied the use of Bacon’s paintings, Love Is the Devil evokes the artist’s visual signature with astonishing and disturbing results: actors’ faces, distorted by barroom mirrors and cracked windows, morph into twisted masks; their bodies seem to be ripped open, as if consumed by fire. Although the source of Dyer’s mental anguish is left unexplained, his nightmares, in which he sees himself as the brutalized prisoner of Bacon’s hellish images, bespeak a sort of nonspecific movie madness that frequently afflicts artists’ lovers, from Dora Maar to Zelda Fitzgerald. (If Dyer had fallen in with Turner, rather than Bacon, would he be having beautiful dreams about sunsets and lush green landscapes?) Despite an uncomfortable intimacy with Bacon’s visions, Love Is the Devil is in the end, as the subtitle says, ”a study for a portrait” of the maddeningly elusive artist, who recognizes the destructive demon within himself and then watches, transfixed and delighted, as the beast runs wild.