Hell Is for Children

Down in it: Daniel Craig in John Maybury's Love Is the Devil

What Dreams May Come
area theaters, starts Friday

Love Is the Devil
Walker Art Center, Saturday at 7 p.m.

I never imagined disliking any movie with the balls to avow that "men" (in the old, emotionally distant control-freak sense) are pigs. Here I've found two that piss me off. Perhaps the critique has grown stale. And maybe I'm sick of redemptive songs--those artful sagas of male insensitivity, enlightenment, and atonement, made by male producers, writers, directors, and stars for Kleenex-clutching female audiences. I use the terms "male" and "female" loosely: These films represent the powerful's apology to the powerless, whether they be poor, stupid, female, brown-skinned, or young. It's a noble gesture. Except that, behind the brilliant projected light, the filmmakers still refuse to share their myth-shaping power. And they expect me to feel grateful.

What Dreams May Come, the latest Robin Williams-brings-the-humanity vehicle, dazzles with inventive sets and subtly incorporated digital effects. After pediatrician Chris Nielsen (Williams) dies, he wakes up in heaven, which for him is an idyllic painting by his wife Annie (Annabella Sciorra, backlit). Gloppy blue and red flowers mark him as he passes (the thick paint is still wet); he can, with a thought, send a bird flying and change its colors (the paint is wet because this world is a collaboration between Chris and "soul mate" Annie). Unfortunately, as Chris's heaven becomes more richly real--and he reconciles with his children, dead four years before--Annie's earthly existence darkens. When she suicides, the stage is set for nightmarish visions on par with Brazil's.

What Dreams, like director Vincent Ward's last film, Map of the Human Heart, is a gorgeously photographed work jam-packed with clichéd content. It draws from a catholic range of idiotic ideas: the New Agey soulmates (whose eternal bond leads to a ferociously sappy epilogue); the pop-psych first principle of "self-forgiveness"; the Old Testament assumption that a man whose stern "Never give up" motto alienated his children deserves heaven more than a woman who felt all their deaths too much. Cuba Gooding Jr., as Chris's unconvincingly earnest guide Alpert, struggles to explain to Chris why Annie went to hell. The reason is already clear: Annie's in hell because Chris must learn Another Important Lesson About Being Human.

Alpert's recurrent mantra--besides "You go, boy!", a line which might well destroy Gooding's career--is that, in this heaven, thought equals reality. Think it, and it is. As a consequence, all the souls in heaven bliss out in their own private Idahos (the fantasy of a road rage victim?). The actors in Chris's post-doc program might be, then, only as real as his need for (self-)forgiveness; certainly none of them resonate as anything more than, say, a carrot in a dream. The movie's climax arrives when controlling Chris discovers the (feminine, according to the casting) virtues of giving in, being weak, letting himself be saved. As a female viewer, I felt I'd just been patted on the head. Oh sirs, I'm glad to have served as a step on your stairway to heaven! Now let's discover the virtues of smacking arrogant prats round the ears.

The same condescending scenario gets a somewhat murkier reading in John Maybury's Love Is the Devil, a hallucinatory look at the 1964-1971 relationship between British artist Francis Bacon (he of the screaming popes) and his street-punk lover George Dyer. When cat burglar Dyer (sulky Daniel Craig) drops into the studio of Bacon (Derek Jacobi, reptilian here), the painter convinces him that to boff a toff is better than to rob him. Bacon likes rough trade, as Jacobi explains in one of the unbearably self-aggrandizing voiceovers (direct quotes, apparently): How else, he asks, can one fully submit to pleasure?

Unfortunately, Dyer, picked for his criminal, lower-class slouch, reveals himself no cheerful bedroom brutalizer. The violence hurts his mind, and he becomes wracked with nightmares (eloquently conceived by Maybury as variations on Bacon's slurry, ravaged paintings). He begins a long slide of compulsive, self-destructive behavior, pushed along by the acerbic Bacon, who, as the real top, finds Dyer's weakness repulsive, yet necessary. For he draws on this messy horror (i.e., he follows his lover to hell) to create some of his best work. As his agent notes, all the tenderness he feels toward Dyer goes onto the canvases.

It's a startling portrait, especially given the visual agility of Maybury (a video director who assisted Derek Jarman on three films) and the grinding score by Ryuichi Sakamoto. But it's also troubling. Maybury has put a genius at the center of his film, and he won't dislodge him. Surrounded by fawning sycophants, Bacon rules this groovy heaven/dizzying hell as horned god--with Dyer a hovering demon or angel or, in any case, not a person we should care much about. I quickly wished he'd quit his whining and finish himself off. That out of the way, Dyer can be mourned by Bacon (redeemed in light by an empathetic Maybury, who has after all styled his film on the man's art), and the rest of us can toddle off to view the genius's brilliant paintings--carefully consecrated at a museum near you.

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