By Ezra Stead
Afterschool, USA, 2008
Written and Directed by Antonio Campos
Love is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon, UK / France / Japan, 1998
Written and Directed by John Maybury
Today’s entry in the old Movies I Didn’t Get pantheon looks at two films made a decade apart that share one major unifying similarity, which is an abundance of visual style. Antonio Campos’s Afterschool and John Maybury’s Love is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon have very little else in common other than a similarly dark vision and the fact that each is the work of a single, distinct writer-director, but seeing them within about a week of one another, I was struck by how each of them create fascinating worlds through the use of highly unconventional cinematic techniques. In both films, the viewer is consistently thrown off-kilter by camera angles and distortions that create an intentional emotional distance, and at times even make it difficult (and therefore all the more intriguing) to see what exactly is going on in the edges of the frame that is our only window in.
Afterschool opens with a succession of images taken from the constant sensory barrage that is our modern-day internet viewing activity, from kittens and babies to the public execution of Saddam Hussein (I was shocked to realize that this was the first time I had actually seen it, then even more shocked at my sense of shock), before landing on footage from an amateur porn site in which a would-be starlet going by the name Cherry Dee (Byrdie Bell) is verbally abused and lightly choked by the unseen cameraman. The scene is staged, of course, but so authentically portrays the type of thing we’ve become accustomed to seeing proliferate online that I had my doubts, doubts which the filmmaker further exploits by listing the site among other real acknowledgements in the final credits. It is also a very effective way to set the tone for a film that will continue to assault the viewer’s sense of comfort throughout the rest of its running time.
The boy watching the imagery onscreen is our protagonist, Rob (Ezra Miller), a shy, soft-spoken teenager at a private school where he is on the fringes of the in-crowd. Uninterested in sports but forced to participate in some sort of after school activity, he elects to join the video club, partly in order to get closer to Amy (Addison Timlin), a pretty girl who is nonetheless also outside the popular circle, and therefore not necessarily out of his league. While filming a hallway in the school, Rob accidentally captures the mysterious and violent deaths of the most popular girls at the school, the Talbert twins (Mary and Carly Michelson), one of whom actually dies in his lap. The viewer is left to witness the entire scene only from the point-of-view of Rob’s stationary camera, leaving the cause of their deaths as much a mystery to us as it is to the rest of the school.
This is a technique employed throughout, with much of the story told only through the lenses of the cameras used by Rob and Amy as they work on their shared project; when they are not documenting their own existence, the characters of Afterschool are often seen watching online videos that eerily mirror or predict their own experiences. It is not a perfect film, as some of the connections between the online entertainment absorbed by Rob and his own behavior feel a bit contrived and perhaps too simplistic at times, but what it shows (rather than tells) about the pervasiveness of media in modern life, especially for young people, is chilling and effective. The acting is surprisingly excellent, considering the age and amateur status of nearly everyone involved, and Campos proves himself to be a remarkably sure and daring first-time filmmaker worth watching for in the future. His commitment to his aesthetic calls to mind excellent and startlingly immediate films such as Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003) and Michael Haneke’s Cache (2005), and a cast of extremely convincing unknowns only adds to the effect.
John Maybury’s Love is the Devil, by contrast, casts a handful of more well-known British actors in a story involving actual people and events told with a style that is so surreal it often feels like a dream, though never a very pleasant one. The impeccable Derek Jacobi stars as Francis Bacon, one of the greatest and certainly one of the darkest painters of the 20th century, and the film follows his turbulent relationship with George Dyer (Daniel Craig, in one of his first big roles). The two first meet as Dyer is attempting to burglarize Bacon’s studio, which doubles as his home, but they quickly become lovers and soon Bacon is Dyer’s meal ticket and Dyer Bacon’s muse. Their relationship gradually turns sour, though, as Dyer’s alcoholism spirals out of control and Bacon’s high society friends, including Muriel Belcher (the great Tilda Swinton in a gleefully grotesque performance) begin to find him repulsive rather than charmingly low-class.
This is, of course, the conventional way to tell the story, which is far from what Maybury does. Instead, the film resembles one of Bacon’s eerie and disturbing paintings come to shambling life, as figures are often seen through beer glasses or in reflections, evoking by turns the strange distortions seen in Bacon’s work and his fondness for triptychs. Maybury also shows a command of shadows and light that is quite impressive, as in one of the film’s best scenes, in which Jacobi’s voice-over narration accompanies a long, unwavering shot of his eyes enshrouded in shadow, his head upside-down, making him appear as some sort of alien monster hiding in the darkness. This poetic voice-over flows throughout the film, not so much tying it together as offering brief reflective pauses between episodic scenes of the chaos that was, as the Daniel Farson biography that provided the film’s inspiration dubbed it, Bacon’s “gilded gutter life.”
Perhaps the main flaw of the film is this episodic nature, with narrative events so random and scattershot that it is difficult to find any strong emotional engagement. Yet I couldn’t imagine the film being better had it been made in any other way. Certainly Bacon himself, at least as portrayed in the film, could never be accused of being overly emotional – “aloof” is not strong enough a word for his general public demeanor; “cruel” is better suited in most instances. What could be a painfully maudlin story in the hands of a more conventional filmmaker is instead a darkly beautiful work of cinematic art that is tragic but never sentimental. The film, like Bacon, eschews likability in favor of something more lasting and haunting, a look at the life of one artist who dared to look into the abyss time and time again, a film that dares us to look along with him.
Ezra Stead is the Head Editor for MoviesIDidn’tGet.com. Ezra is also a screenwriter, actor, filmmaker, rapper and poet who has been previously published in print and online, as well as writing, directing and acting in numerous short films and two features. A Minneapolis native, Ezra currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.
For more information, please contact EzraStead@MoviesIDidntGet.com.