Love is the Devil – Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon (1998)

Film Review by Harry Karlinsky, MD, MSc, FRCPC and Amy Karlinsky, BA HONS, BED, MA

Director: John Maybury Cast: Derek Jacobi, Daniel Craig, Tilda Swinton, Anne Lambton, Adrian Scarborough

Francis Bacon (1909-1992) is often regarded as the greatest of the modern British painters, best known for painting bleak and grotesque portraits with gruesome distorted limbs and physiognomies, particularly in the aftermath of World War II, when modernist art movements underwent cataclysmic shifts. During Bacon’s lifetime, important exhibitions of his work were held at New York’s Guggenheim Museum; the Grand Palais in Paris; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

In Love is the Devil, a fiercely honest film written and directed by John Maybury, the viewer learns that Bacon, despite his creative genius, was cruel, selfish, sexually masochistic, alcoholic, preoccupied with erotic fantasies and just down right unlikable. Perhaps to viewers of Pollock or Frida, other Hollywood films depicting the artist genius, these exposés of excessive personalities and dysfunctional relationships should come as no surprise. The script is loosely based on Daniel Farson’s book, The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, and revolves around Bacon’s doomed homosexual relationship with a burglar (indeed, remarkably his burglar) named George Dyer between the years 1964 and 1971. The film provides a glimpse into the bohemian and urban world of Bacon’s inner circle of friends and haunts, particularly the infamous Colony Room, a Soho drinking club. Ultimately, the relationship ends with Dyer’s suicide, apparently, at least partly the result of Bacon’s escalating cruelty, hence (presumably) the title of the film.

Most film reviews of Love is the Devil are mixed. The positive observations inevitably reference Sir Derek Jacobi’s mesmerizing performance as Bacon as well as the clever technical distortions, reflections and elongated images embedded throughout the film that evoke the viewing experience of a Bacon painting itself. Unfortunately the theme of ‘interesting failure’ also emerges, with the film viewed as disjointed and overly stylized. This is perhaps a common fault of film about art where cinematographic stylizations attempt to mimic the visual conventions of the artist at hand. Perhaps we should be grateful that Bacon was less of a surrealist!

For the psychiatrist in the audience, perhaps the most interesting viewing moments are those that portray Bacon at work. Although permission to display finished paintings was refused by Bacon’s estate, the film utilizes documentary footage of Bacon in the act of painting in his chaotic studio. The fury and intensity of this activity is remarkable as is Bacon’s despair. Indeed it is the despair that appears to be his driving creative force. It is as if Bacon is indulging and even unleashing the sensation of his despair at his masochistic expense. Somehow it’s no longer surprising that the emerging images are human bodies oozing anguish and ugliness – screaming popes, people vomiting into washbasins or sitting on a toilet. One of the limitations of this intense focus on the trope of the individual artist genius is that it minimizes the degree to which social, economic and artistic concerns played a role in this acute form of internalized angst. Other artists at the time chose bestiality and despair withering humanist capabilities as outcomes of the post WWII world. Are impassioned moods related to creativity, not just in Bacon’s apparent case, but also more generally? Although clearly not all psychiatric “illness” or states convey creative advantages, scholars such as Kay Redfield Jamison in her book Touched with Fire provide convincing evidence for a specific link between bipolar illness and the artistic temperament. The evidence now goes beyond life-study investigations of prominent artists and findings of increased rates of mood disorders to specific investigations delineating the role of moods in intensely creative periods. Other research has focused on studies of creative achievement in affectively ill patients; there are also now large pedigree studies where both creativity and psychiatric illness are examined for in all family members. These latter studies revolve around the hypothesis that a genetic vulnerability to Bipolar Disorder may be accompanied by a predisposition to creativity that might be prominent in close family members of affected individuals. Indeed, recent studies have demonstrated that creativity and mood disorders do tend to aggregate in certain families, with genetic inheritance exerting the primary explanatory influence.

Love is the Devil depicts Bacon as a man who is ‘mercurial, intemperate, volatile, brooding, troubled and stormy’– in short, and with Jamison’s thesis in mind, an artist with the classic ‘artistic temperament’. It is worth keeping in mind that art historians and critics have worked to debunk this myth as ahistorical and linked, in particular; with male modernist artists from Romantic movements such as Expressionism or Abstract Expressionism. Was Bacon Bipolar? Perhaps. Were his mood swings essential for his creativity? Again a diffident perhaps with the following rationale. Bacon preferred to avoid explanatory titles for his titles, often choosing instead Study – ‘because I do not believe paintings are ever finished’. Love is the Devil – Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon also leaves (unfinished) questions, enticing the viewer to learn more about this fascinating individual and his artistic legacy and muses.

For the cinephiles, two interesting closings aside. As noted by Farson, Francis Bacon also intrigued filmmakers other than Maybury. Bernardo Bertolucci used Bacon’s images for the opening titles of his infamously sexually explicit 1972 movie Last Tango in Paris. And when set designers first began work on The Silence of the Lambs, they too were influenced by Bacon to create the stark brutal cell of Hannibal Lecter.

Authors: Harry Karlinsky, MD, MSc, FRCPC, Director of Continuing Medical Education and Professional Development, Dept of Psychiatry, University of British Columbia;

Amy Karlinsky, Visiting Fellow, St. John’s College, University of Manitoba