It was with a mixture of trepidation and excitement that I put this weeks screener, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, into my DVD player and hit 'play.' My trepidation came from a few sources; since having a daughter three years ago, and because of my own experiences with an abusive step-dad, I find movies with child abuse difficult to watch. I had heard much about the extreme depths that this film goes to, had heard quite a bit about the source material, and was a bit nervous about how I would react to something that usually affects me so viscerally. On the flipside of that, I was also a bit nervous about the fact that Asia Argento had directed it. Argento's only previous full-length directorial effort was the vaguely autobiographical 'Scarlet Diva,' a film which promised the same soul-searing depths of raw, nasty emotion, yet delivered only mind(and ass) numbing boredom. Still, on the strength of that film, some shorts, and maybe her father's reputation(she is the daughter of Italian horror-master Dario Argento), she's become a favorite among certain indie directors including Gus Van Sant and Abel Ferrara. And maybe because of those same things I'll always be interested in what she does. Also, I have to admit, some of the excitement comes from purely prurient reasons; Asia Argento is, or at least was, smokin' hot. I've had a bit of a crush on her since I saw her get topless in Trauma when I was 16. But then, somewhere in between New Rose Hotel and Land of the Dead, she began taking on the appearance of a hardcore substance abuser. This new look for her actually fits for her role in this film, because that's a very important part of the character.
Based upon the memoir by JT LeRoy, the movie begins immediately with 7 year old Jeremiah being taken from his loving foster family and returned to his biological mother Sarah, played by Asia Argento with an infrequent Tennessee accent. We get absolutely no glimpse of what his life with his foster family was like, although it is clear he loved them and believed them to be his true parents, and it certainly had to be better than life with Sarah. On their first day together she tells him he's unwanted, that he would have been flushed down the toilet if she'd had her way, and then proceeds to give him hard drugs. This is, of course, only the beginning. To cover the litany of abuses in this film would take far to long, so it would be best if you just imagined whatever horrible thing you can happening to a child. Chances are it's in this film. Sarah encourages her one night stands to beat Jeremiah for wetting the bed, dresses him up in her clothing and introduces him at times as her sister, and frequently leaves him in the care of her boyfriends/'johns' for extended periods of time, at one point not showing up for years. And trust me, there's worse to be found between the opening and closing credits.
There's something here that the film never bothers to address; why would Sarah, who so resents her child, continually return to drag him back into her life? She takes him back from his foster parents, but immediately begins to ignore and abuse him. She leaves him with a man who puts him in the hospital through his abuse, but comes back three years later to kidnap him away from his grandparents. Maybe the filmmakers(Asia Argento is writer AND director, so I guess it would be her) assumed this is just something people do, one of those unexplained quirks of the heart, but to trust so implicitly that we won't question why someone who so hates being a mother would keep taking back her child only to ignore or abuse him is a bit lazy.
The beginning of the film, where young Jeremiah is hurled into this nightmarish existence, is the most harrowing part to watch. Eventually, however, the film gets into a pattern where Sarah meets a new guy, has sex in front of Jeremiah, mentally abuses him, does LOTS of drugs, and then leaves. Repeat this about half a dozen times, and the film becomes boring to the point where it becomes a game of spot the cameo; there's Winona Ryder as a clueless social worker! Marilyn Manson as a white trash boyfriend that sexually assaults Jeremiah! Peter Fonda as the ultra-strict head of an ultra-religious family!? One wonders how Asia Argento was able to convince this many name(or almost name) actors and actresses to be in her film(sometimes uncredited), but I imagine it's because they all saw this as the type of 'shocking' project that would garner divisive critical response and murmurs about how daring their involvement was. Or maybe I'm being cynical.
If it sounds like I lost interest in the film, well, it's true. I did. Which is not the reaction I expected to have. I expected to, at the very least, be disgusted, shocked, or depressed by the film. But bored? No, wouldn't have guessed that. Or maybe the problem is with me. This is one of those difficult indie movies that divide audiences at film festivals. The type of film that imparts some vital message about the human condition that I'm just not hard wired to receive. But then, that wouldn't account for the boredom. A film about child abuse shouldn't be this dull. Due to the construct of the book, the movie has no flow, but is instead a series of vignettes. This also makes the movie feel like a shopping list, a recounting of events in a rote chronological order instead of a heartfelt admission. And that, then, is the major, fatal flaw in this film; that it has less emotion than the Dateline special inspired by these events would have.
As a director, though, I do believe Argento has grown. This film shows more stylistic flair than Scarlet Diva, and more confidence behind the camera. At times the camera lingers, and at others it moves with a jittery, manic anxiety as the film sways from stark realism to dark fantasy(Jeremiah frequently hallucinates two red, claymation birds whenever things get particularly trying for him). Some of this may have to do with director of photography Eric Alan Edwards, who's worked on a wide variety of films, including Kids, Knocked Up, My Own Private Idaho, and Crossroads(not the good one with Ralph Macchio, the Britney Spears one), but I'll place enough stock with Argento to actually look forward to her next film.
In 2005 it was revealed that JT LeRoy had never existed, that the autobiographical books were actually written by a woman in her 40s, and public appearances were made by an in-law of hers(this was believed because LeRoy was, according to the 'memoirs', a fairly feminine man attempting to live as a woman). The DVD acknowledges this by having the word 'true' scratched out of the tagline 'based upon a true story by JT LeRoy'. It's an intriguing marketing gimmick, and hints at a different, possibly superior movie waiting out there. I'm not saying this should be remade as a Charlie Kaufmann logic puzzle, but if the movie had acknowledged that 'these events were horrible, things like this happen all the time, but hey, maybe our narrator is flawed', it would have been more compelling. Think Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as an example of a totally heightened movie experience. A 'true' story where most of what is reported didn't actually happen, but the messages and observations remain valid. Usually it's pointless and unfair to say what a movie 'could have been', because a movie is never anything other than what it is, but here it's just too irresistible a thought.
I've tried not to read any reviews of this film, because I didn't want anyone else's opinion to inform my own. Now that I'm done, I plan on rectifying that. However, I did go check out what Ebert had to say, and in the end he gave it a 2 out of 4, as a compromise between horror and admiration, and would not recommend it. I'll shorten that and just not recommend it.