Love Is the Devil

UK/France/Japan 1998, 91 mins
Director: John Maybury

When Love Is the Devil was released in 1998, it was John Maybury’s first incursion into the mainstream after a long career stretching back to his teens when he worked on Derek Jarman’s celebrated film Jubilee (1978) in the British film avant-garde (though Maybury preferred the term ‘underground cinema’). In the early 1980s and working on no budgets Maybury – together with artist and filmmaker Cerith Wyn Evans – spearheaded the last coherent British avant-garde film movement, dubbed the New Romantics (much to the chagrin of the filmmakers themselves). With their use of the amateur Super 8 film gauge, they developed an intensely imagistic aesthetic often combining symbolist motifs with sexual (primarily gay) excess and an inter-textuality in which pop, classical and world music, dance, text and fashion freely intermingled. In this way, the New Romantics broke with the modernist formalism that had dominated the avant-garde since the late 1960s.

Godard, Cocteau, Warhol and Kenneth Anger among others were obvious reference points for Maybury, who in his dynamic and hypnotic short film Tortures that Laugh (1983), shot on black and white 16mm, depicted a dark claustrophobic world in which personal isolation was endemic (a view that seems to have informed all of his work since including Love Is the Devil and the more recent The Jacket, 2005). In a long video piece Circus Logic I-IV (1983) he collaged found imagery taken from films, television, newspapers and magazines, and at times the voice of William S. Burroughs, to explore popular culture and its stifling effects on personal and sexual freedom. Maybury’s worldview seems one of social and psychological fragmentation and superficiality, which made his work quite distinctive within the movement, and still informs his filmmaking.

By the mid 1980s Maybury was an adept and keen experimenter with the new technologies of video and early computerisation. He also became more involved in pop videos, working with Boy George, Neneh Cherry and Sinéad O’Connor and contributing to Jarman’s films and videos, notably The Smith’s ‘The Queen Is Dead’. Ironically, his most successful pop video – for O’Connor’s hit ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ (1990) – used only a very simple Warholian long take, focussing on O’Connor’s moving performance. It scooped MTV and Grammy awards and became a classic of the genre.

Even at this early stage in his career Maybury showed a willingness and ability to shape his work to the material at hand and not to be ruled by any single aesthetic or technological practice. In the years that followed, particularly in the early 1990s, he was an early enthusiast for the burgeoning video/digital-effects world, using such techniques in his hour-long films Premonition of Absurd Perversion in Sexual Personae Part 1 (1992) and Remembrance of Things Fast (1993). In both these films a frantic approach dominated by special effects often overwhelmed any theme, though the case here was often that of the medium being the message: media proliferation and its disjunctive chaotic invasion of society seemed to reflect the mental breakdown of characters, who in Remembrance speak directly to camera. In retrospect it is clear how much importance Maybury gave to performance. For example in 1992 he made Man to Man, based on the one-woman play of the same name by Manfred Karge with Tilda Swinton in the single role, of a German woman who disguises herself as a man during and after World War II.

But in most ways Love Is the Devil marked a fundamental break. First, Maybury had a decent budget. Second, the fragmented excess of preceding films gave way to a cool, detached control with priority given to the performances, notably those of Derek Jacobi as Francis Bacon and Daniel Craig as his lover George Dyer. A BBC co-funded film, it was loosely based on Daniel Farson’s biography of Bacon. The estate did not allow any reproduction of Bacon’s paintings in the film, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Maybury, who was able to focus on what interested him about Bacon, namely his relationship with George Dyer, a petty East London thief. It is a remarkably confident first feature film in its handling of the narrative and in its excellent performances.

The film begins ‘at the end’ with Dyer’s suicide by an overdose in a Paris hotel as Bacon attends the opening night of his major 1971 retrospective at the Grand Palais. What follows is the story of two men locked into a relationship from which neither can escape. Seeing the film again, not only has it not dated, but it can be seen as a film that offers much more than the usual artist biog. It achieves a quite stunning psychological depth in its portrait of a tragic love affair. Despite some awkwardness in the script it is clear to see why Steven Soderbergh admired the film and how it became Maybury’s calling card to Hollywood.

A complex film, dealing with sex, art, class, love and neurosis, Love Is the Devil works in many ways on dualities and ironic reversals. Bacon’s sexual masochism – with Dyer dishing out the sadism with belted fist – is reversed in their social relationship in which it is Bacon’s confidence, sophistication and wit that cruelly dominates the uneducated working class thief, enthralled by his famous lover. While Bacon can relish working-class culture – shown in a visit to an East London boxing match – Dyer is lost in Bacon’s camp bohemian Soho world of writers and artists. In matters of love, it is Dyer who falls victim to a crushing dependency on Bacon as he mentally disintegrates and becomes addicted to drugs and drink, while Bacon grows weary of him. Bacon also recognises his own inability to love, revealing a deep isolation and coldness to his character that is relieved only by his paintings, which alone bear witness to his deeper emotional states, and that seem to reflect Dyer’s inner turmoil and nightmares. It is this paradox that drives the film and places its achievement as a depiction of the artistic attitude and process alongside Jarman’s Caravaggio.

Maybury’s long-standing interest in the overlapping aspects of British culture found a fascinating outlet in Love Is the Devil. Visits to the different worlds of the British Museum, the boxing match, the Colony Room Club are all absorbed into Bacon’s world where aesthetics and sex rule, whereas for Dyer there is only confusion. If Bacon can produce art from this fragmentary experience, then Dyer can only drown in its contradictions. For both men, in the end, love is an unattainable state, forever out of reach. While Bacon can artistically thrive on this, Dyer’s mental life implodes, leading to his suicide. Maybury makes this point with great visual economy in a memorable shot of Bacon working in his studio at night with a drunken Dyer crumpled on the littered floor behind him.

Maybury had always been fascinated by subcultures and he seems to relish the scenes at the Colony Room, run by Tilda Swinton’s Muriel Belcher, whose obscene wit and ruthless purging of unwanted guests was notorious. Played with gusto, equalled by Karl Johnson’s seedy and more laid-back Vogue photographer John Deakin, they are the film’s Greek chorus, gathered around Bacon, and revelling in his fame and outrageous wit and charm. For Dyer, it is an alien world in which he is tolerated and patronised. Finally, Dyer can exist neither in his old world of the London working-class criminal nor in this new one revolving around his lover. But Maybury draws out a very sympathetic performance from Jacobi as Bacon, who in many ways is the villain of the film, and Craig’s Dyer achieves a wonderful balance of a tough man struggling with his inner demons. A remarkable film.
Michael O’Pray, Love Is the Devil DVD/Blu-ray booklet essay (BFI, 2008/2015)


Director: John Maybury
BBC Films and The British Film Institute present in association with The Arts Council of England/Première Heure/Uplink
a British Film Institute production in association with Partners in Crime with the assistance of STATE
Screenplay developed by BFI Production and BBC Films with the support of The European Script Fund – an initiative of The Media Programme of the European Union
Initial Development by: Partners in Crime
Supported by: The National Lottery through the Arts Council of England
Executive Producers: Frances-Anne Solomon, Ben Gibson
Premiere Heure Executive Producer: Patrice Haddad
Uplink Executive Producer: Takashi Asai
Producer: Chiara Menage
Co-producers: James Cohen, Don Jordan
Line Producer: Yvonee Ibazebo
BBC Production Executive: Christopher Cameron
BFI Production Executive: Christopher Collins
Production Co-ordinator: Bella Randall
Production Accountant: Trevor Stanley
Location Manager: Bill Payn
Post-production Supervisor: Emma Salter
1st Assistant Director: Deborah Saban
2nd Assistant Director: Olivia Lloyd
3rd Assistant Director: Jojo Tulloh
Script Supervisor: Laura Goulding
Casting: Mary Selway, Emma Buckley
Script Editor: Miriam Segal
Written by: John Maybury
Co-writers: James Cohen, Don Jordan
Director of Photography: John Mathieson
Focus Puller: Keith McNamara
Clapper Loader: Thomas McFarling
Gaffer: Richard Barber
Grip: Rupert Lloyd-Parry
Video Technician: Ron Osman
Stills Photography: Jaap Buitendijk
Visual Effects: The Film Factory at VTR Visual Effects Supervisor: Simon Giles
_ Title Background/Additional Effects:_ Rushes Post Production
Wire Effects: Kevin Welch
Special Effects: Bob Smoke
Graphic Artist: Matthew Maxwell
Editor: Daniel Goddard
Assistant Editors: James Lingard, Emily Grant, Anna Turville, Gavin Buckley
On-line Editor: Gavin Burridge
Production Designer: Alan MacDonald
Art Director: Christina Moore
Set Dresser: Philippa Hart
Scenic Artist: Thomasina Smith
Storyboard Artist: Temple Clark
Props Master: Alex Ward
Costume Designer: Annie Symons
Wardrobe Supervisor: Miles Johnson
Hair/Make-up Designer: Jacquetta Levon
Make-up Artist: Alex King
Hairdresser: Donald McInnes
Titles/Opticals: General Screen Enterprises
Laboratory: Rank Film Laboratories
Music Composer/Performer: Ryuichi Sakamoto
Music Editors: Daniel Goddard, Jeremy Price
Mixed by: Goh Hotoda
Sound Design: Paul Davies
Sound Recordist: Ken Lee
Dubbing Mixer: Tim Alban
Stunt Co-ordinators: Rod Woodruff, Glen Marks
Special Consultant: Daniel Farson

Derek Jacobi (Francis Bacon)
Daniel Craig (George Dyer)
Anne Lambton (Isabel Rawsthorne)
Karl Johnson (John Deakin)
Annabel Brooks (Henrietta Moraes)
Adrian Scarborough (Daniel Farson)
Tilda Swinton (Muriel Belcher)
Richard Newbold (Blonde Billy)
Ariel De Ravenel (French official)
Tallulah (Ian Board)
Andy Linden (Ken Bidwell)
David Kennedy (Joe Furneval)
Gary Hume (Volker Dix)
Damian Dibben, Antony Cotton (Brighton rent boys)
Anthony Ryding (London rent boy)
Christian Martin (bell-hop)
Ray Olley (boxing referee)
Wesley Morgan, Nigel Travis (boxers)
Eddie Kerr (tailor)
George Clarke, David Windle (wrestlers)
William Hoyland (police sergeant)
Mark Umbers (PC Denham)
Hamish Bowles (David Hockney)
Jibby Beane, Gentuca Bini, James Birch, Tim Burke, Liz Clarke, Jemima Cotter, Fiona Dealey, John Dunbar, Victoria Fernandez, Natalie Gibson, Caroline Hardy, Charlie Hayward, Miles Johnson, Kate St. Johnston, Ulla Larson, Alistair Mathieson, Chiara Menage, James Mitchell, Gregor Muir, Lorcan O’Neill, Jon Spiteri, Francesco Vezzoli, Thalia Valeta, Marjorie Walker, Gillian Young (Parisian art world)

UK/France/Japan 1998©
91 mins

The screening on Wednesday 30 August will be introduced.

Miller’s Crossing
Tue 1 Aug 20:40; Sat 12 Aug 15:20; Mon 14 Aug 18:10
Sawdust and Tinsel (Gycklanas afton)
Wed 2 Aug 18:10 (+ intro by Geoff Andrew, Programmer-at-Large); Tue 22 Aug 20:45
The Night of the Hunter
Thu 3 Aug 20:50; Sat 26 Aug 18:10; Tue 29 Aug 20:50
The Bigamist
Fri 4 Aug 20:45; Wed 9 Aug 18:00 (+ intro by Aga Baranowska, Events Programmer)
3 Women
Sat 5 Aug 20:30; Sun 20 Aug 18:25
La Peau douce (Silken Skin)
Sun 6 Aug 18:30; Thu 24 Aug 20:45
In the Mood for Love (Huayang Nianhua)
Mon 7 Aug 18:10; Fri 18 Aug 20:45; Fri 25 Aug 18:20
Charulata (The Lonely Wife)
Tue 8 Aug 20:35; Wed 16 Aug 18:00 (+ intro by Professor Chandak Sengoopta, Birkbeck College, University of London)
Brief Encounter
Thu 10 Aug 18:30; Sun 20 Aug 13:20
Merrily We Go to Hell
Fri 11 Aug 18:20; Wed 23 Aug 18:15 (+ intro by author and film journalist Helen O’Hara)
Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon
Sat 12 Aug 20:40; Wed 30 Aug 18:10 (+ intro)
Mildred Pierce
Sun 13 Aug 15:40; Mon 21 Aug 20:45; Mon 28 Aug 15:10
Beau travail
Tue 15 Aug 20:45; Mon 28 Aug 18:30
Red River
Thu 17 Aug 20:20; Sun 27 Aug 15:20
Blue Velvet Sat 19 Aug 17:45; Thu 24 Aug 18:10; Thu 31 Aug 20:35

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Programme notes and credits compiled by Sight and Sound and the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
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