Spout Mavens Disc #9: The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things (2004)

Director: Asia Argento
Palm Pictures, 1:38; color
Cinema 4 Rating: 5

Perhaps a movie can exist solely to make you glad your mom isn’t a goddamn whore.

I’m sure director/lead actress Asia Argento had artier ambitions when she took on The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, a film version of a supposedly fictionalized account of a supposedly real author’s supposed childhood, than giving me warm fuzzies about me own dear mum. But in the end, after ninety-plus minutes of extremely horrid mothering, child rape after child rape, gender confusion, religious torture and brainwashing, I felt a deeply abiding satisfaction with my own personal upbringing. The worst moments in my childhood didn’t even come within miles of even the slightest suffering the young boy in this film faces. It even nudged me into calling my mom later that evening to catch up on things, and while the onslaught of lurid imagery captured within the film still flashed behind my eyes whilst I spoke to her, I was relieved to speak to someone who would never have lead me down the path of evil that Argento’s Sarah does to her son in this film.

Of course, except in a case where a filmmaker would wish to suffuse a film with an air of forced surrealism, no one would dare cast Argento as a normal housewife, let alone an upstanding mother. Not that she couldn’t pull off the role, but it really wouldn’t suit her strengths. She knows this, and she smartly casts herself in the part of the drug-addled prostitute mommy, who drags her son through a series of misadventures and molestations with a pill-and-meth-beaded string of scumbag boyfriends and husbands. That the helpless and confused child seems to be equally attractive to these men as his sexually vivacious and seemingly insatiable mother really seems a mystery – the child does nothing at first to either attract nor repel his molesters, and while many women do have a certain “type”, it stretches plausibility that she would hit the target so perfectly time after time (not all of them do him harm, it should be mentioned) – and then the issue is remarked upon in the film itself when Sarah starts to not only dress the boy up in her clothes (causing her latest man, played with appropriate creepiness by an almost unrecognizable Marilyn Manson, to confusedly ravage the child), but later introduces him to her tricks at a truckstop as her “little sister.”

Besides Manson, an amazing array of well-known personalities or up-and-coming actors inhabit the shells of this circle of fiends that the boy –- played in his older, slightly more cynical incarnation by those Zack and Cody twins, Dylan and Cole Sprouse (light-years away from the Disney Channel) and as a wide-eyed youngster by Jimmy Bennett –- meets during this tour of hell. Outside of Jeremy Sisto, though, this rogue’s gallery has hardly enough screen time to make much of an impression beyond the cruel actions of their characters, and the same effect could have been made with a series of complete unknowns. In fact, such a move may have made the movie even harder to deal with emotionally, stripping the artifice (though certainly the professionalism) that known faces can bring to a project. Argento herself, however, is a consistently fascinating creature to behold, as always. Some of her character choices are just so far beyond what a normal actress would bring to this role, that I could not stop delving into the sordid world, even when good, caring Psyche herself reached out through the ether and sought to convince me that such continued behavior could only serve to cause me irreparable brain damage.

I withstood these suggestions, this better judgment, and this is because, despite the subject matter, the film is compulsively watchable, mainly thanks to the magnetic Argento, both on camera and off. Her camera, and the screenplay which she and Alessandro Magania have fashioned from the book by J.T. LeRoy, does reflect a certain impatience with details, almost a jittery nature that makes one ask questions well after a scene has ended. The film just moves, taking just enough time at each stop to wallow slightly in one degradation before passing to the next. This is also the film’s downfall, eventually, as things, perhaps reflecting the further deterioration of Sarah into a full-blown mental case, become so haphazard that one wonders whether anyone on the set has any control over the situation. (There is some small evidence here, though, that she may already be a better pure director than her more famous father, laden as he is by a bag of vaudeville magician’s tricks out of which he has been unable to crawl these past twenty years or so.)

I am not going to go into the controversy surrounding the author’s true identity, and whether or not the horrible things that pile up on the film’s youthful protagonist really did or could happen to a single child. Seeing as I have not, nor will I ever, read the source material, I just don’t care about the debate. And it has no bearing on my opinion of this movie, outside of the question as to why, if one wasn’t writing autobiographically (or even strictly biographically about another), would one have the drive to bring such squalid imagery of child abuse into a world already deathlessly paranoid about the subject, unless these creators were provocateurs of the most deviant variety. An artist’s deeper intentions or impulsions are theirs with which to wrestle and suffer, and eventually they will wrangle these demons into their particular mode of art. If “J.T. LeRoy” or his/her actual handlers felt this impulsive need to bring this slice of their world, however real or imagined, to nasty, gnashing life into ours, then so be it. Fly forth and spew your savage (and politically conspicuous) vision of the world onto paper. And if a renegade and rising talent of a director happens to come along and turn that vision into a oddly watchable but alternately despicable marvel, then so be it, too.

But don’t thrust your assault at me and tell me this is a reflection of the world in which I dwell, because I will deny it. Just leave me out of it. Keep your drama away from me. It’s certainly a world that crudely fascinates the viewer on the screen, but it is simply not my world. It’s not a reality in which I have ever found myself. So help me, it is not my world…

Or maybe it is now, since I can’t get some of these images out of my mind…

And maybe this is that moment where I really need to remind myself of how lucky I have been thus far.


Mark Otis said…
The latest Believer has a book review referencing J.T. Leroy.

More soon,

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