For all its agony and anguish, Asia Argento’s film of The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things is a labor of love — the love of a quirky, talented actress-filmmaker for a piece of writing and its author. Both, of course, turned out to be fake.
JT LeRoy, a traumatized, transgendered writer with a childhood full of abuse, became a cause celebre in the late ’90s when a posse of well-meaning hipsters — people like Winona Ryder, Courtney Love, Gus Van Sant, Dennis Cooper, and Asia Argento — took him/her (it was never clear exactly what stage LeRoy was at) under their wings following the publication of Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. The books spoke of trailer-trash despair, religious lunacy/sadism, and a great deal of sexual self-loathing. At the end of The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, the young protagonist Jeremiah, having endured something like two hundred pages of cruelty and neglect, goes to visit a sadist and pays him for more abuse. (That denouement isn’t in the film version, nor is the motif of genital mutilation culminating when Jeremiah’s psychotic, crack-addled mother burns his penis with a car cigarette lighter.)
Who wouldn’t take pity on such a creature? Jeremiah, or JT, or whoever, was a ready-made symbol of art triumphing over white-trash horror — a sensitive Rimbaud arising from the toxic honky-tonk swamp. In 2005, though, it was revealed that JT LeRoy was actually a 40-year-old woman named Laura Albert. More people read about this literary hoax, and the resulting fallout, than actually read the books, which hold up, surprisingly. I don’t know what demons led Laura Albert to impersonate an abused teenage boy and write about his supposed experiences, but the writing itself is no sham. It’s painfully, genuinely felt. Whatever Laura Albert was working out by writing the books, they are authentic feats of compassion and imagination. They are also unavoidably erotic, and not in a safe, approved way: the writing evokes a woman who wishes for a background like JT LeRoy’s so that she can get away with fantasizing about being a horribly abused boy. When Jeremiah asks to be whipped with a belt because it’s the only intimate act he knows, Laura Albert is indulging in literary masochism that fulfills her in some deep, diseased way. The sickness has heat to it, as it does in the work of Dennis Cooper or William Burroughs.
The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, the film, finished production in late 2003 and spent the next couple of years knocking around film festivals. By the time of its official U.S. premiere in March 2006, the JT LeRoy story had already broken, leaving Asia Argento with a literary-gossip footnote rather than a film to be judged on its own merits. Argento had made the movie in good faith, unaware, like everyone else, that the story she was adapting had no basis in anything real. So the movie treats the material with grave respect, though conscientiously leaving out the eroticism. When the cross-dressing young Jeremiah (played in alternating scenes by the twins Cole and Dylan Sprouse) seduces one of his mother’s many boyfriends by dressing up like her, Argento, who plays the mother, plays the scene herself — we’re to understand that the hapless boyfriend legitimately mistakes Jeremiah for the mother, or at least falls into a willing delusion, so Argento gets around the ickiness of the original scenario by filling in for the Sprouse twins on-camera.
Stylistically, the movie is jumpy and somewhat headache-inducing. Sonic Youth shrills on the soundtrack often, joined by the shrieks of Jimmy Bennett as the seven-year-old Jeremiah, who is rejected by his foster parents and taken in by his horrid mother, who had him when she was fifteen. It’s frequently a rough sit, and not just because of the intractable subject matter. Nevertheless, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, along with Asia Argento’s 2000 feature directorial debut Scarlet Diva, marks her as a far more adventurous and even risk-addicted filmmaker than her famous father Dario, who sadly seems to have fallen into a lengthy rut. Asia Argento has always been a dangerous presence as an actress, unpredictable and volatile (she looked titanically bored as the rote eye candy in xXx), and she has herself a fine time here as Sarah, the mean-as-a-snake stripper and truck-stop whore (or “lot lizard”) who drags Jeremiah everywhere, vacillating between not wanting him around and needing him. By the time she becomes obsessively terrified of coal, dyeing her and Jeremiah’s hair black in a restroom and tearing around a supermarket, Jeremiah seems to have entered into her mania with her.
Argento has good taste in actors; among the men Sarah sleeps with or hangs around with are Jeremy Renner (a perpetually underrated performer), Jeremy Sisto, Michael Pitt, Kip Pardue, and a surprisingly good Marilyn Manson, scrubbed of his diabolical makeup. Peter Fonda and Ornella Muti, of all people, turn up as Sarah’s parents, coolly vicious fundamentalists. Winona Ryder and Lydia Lunch even pop in as social workers. In a way, the film is just another party held in honor of JT LeRoy, back when people still believed in him. But that belief — in this story, in its wounded importance — is what keeps The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things from being a fashionable freak show. Argento disregards the sadomasochism (or perhaps doesn’t want to see it) and plumbs Jeremiah’s story for poetic sadness.
(Incidentally, if you happen to have bought or rented a copy of the DVD which, due to an authoring error, is missing the meth-lab explosion scene — which accounts for maybe two minutes of screen time — it’s up on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M4v6VYsoA_c)
The movie is harsh, and I can’t really imagine watching it again, though it has gained a devoted cult of fans who proclaim it their favorite film. It moves them, I would think, the same way the novel moved Asia Argento. It’s the story of a desperately lonely boy who doesn’t belong anywhere, with anyone. His creator, passing herself off as a similar misfit, was embraced and then shunned by the same people who responded so urgently to JT/Jeremiah’s story. Sounds, in fact, like a terrific movie — call Mary Harron.