Asia Argento’s The Heart Is Deceitful above All Things is the preposterous story, once widely imagined to be true, of the childhood of Jeremiah “JT” LeRoy, as he bounces between the custody of his foster parents, his prostitute mother, and his sadistic, fundamentalist grandparents. Now that we’ve been divested of the cherished illusion that JT was a homeless, HIV-positive child prostitute, we are free to watch Heart not as poignant and painfully honest autobiography but as what the story always has been: a punk-inflected fantasy about “white trash.” We can finally concede that the character of JT’s mother Sarah, as played by Argento herself, bears no resemblance to anyone you might actually meet at a West Virginia truck stop, but only to the fictive characters on which she’d always been based, characters in other films played by the likes of Laura Dern, Juliette Lewis, and Reese Witherspoon.
Although Jimmy Bennett, who plays the seven-year-old JT, is a fine little actor, bringing an appropriate confusion and blankness to the role, he has the unhappy task of acting alongside Heart’s director, who seems always to have wandered in from a radically different movie. While we’re accustomed to suspending our disbelief in the face of, say, white trash child-beaters with Hollywood abs, or country-and-western truck drivers with Hollywood tattoos, it is impossible to watch Argento without remembering that we are watching Argento. With that amazing face, she could be a Pasolini character, or the type of dame traditionally played by Anna Magnani, an Italian immigrant stuck in a bad American marriage. In her attempt to channel Courtney Love, she also seems to be approaching, but never quite arriving at, the outrageous camp of early John Waters. She’d play well next to Edith Massey or Divine, certainly. The primary pleasure of this film is watching the obvious relish Argento takes in doing endless varieties of white trash drag.
By the middle of the film, however, when we’ve tired of guessing what floozy outfit she will show up in next, it would be nice to have some sense of the troubled tenderness of this mother-child bond. There is little narrative tension in the film, which treats much of Jeremiah’s childhood like a punk rock acid flashback, a technique that doesn’t serve to create the mental landscape of the boy himself. The film relies on Sonic Youth instead of its actors to create its emotional tone. Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon’s anger and dread are appropriately apocalyptic but don’t fill in the blankness of the older JT, played by twins Cole and Dylan Sprouse. Beyond casting twins to play a fragmented child, Argento has one other inspired conceit: hiring herself as the young Jeremiah for the scene in which he seduces his mother’s boyfriend. This technique both conveys the complex identity issues that form the only interesting context for the film and saves the story from veering into the realm of kiddie porn, where it always seems poised to go.
Argento is not the first director to send her white trash protagonists adrift in a hallucinogenic fun house. Thankfully less ambitious than Oliver Stone in her attempts at social commentary and less silly and deep than David Lynch in her attempts to create an American gothic landscape as dreamworld underbelly, she also has considerably less sense of forward drive. Watching children get abused (and waiting for the next scene of abuse) is a narrative pleasure only for sadists and is illuminating only if we discover a trajectory, no matter how deluded the causality. In Marnie, Tippi Hedren’s childhood encounters with her mother’s promiscuity contribute to her adult career as a kleptomaniac. In Sybil the abuse is the answer to the mystery of what dark secrets lie at the heart of the fragmented personality and its missing chunks of time. The message that child abuse isn’t necessarily interesting or meaningful is probably a valuable one, but as a concept it can’t carry the film any more than the brief cameos by Peter Fonda as the evil fundamentalist grandpa, Marilyn Manson as one of Sarah’s polymorphously perverse boyfriends, or the surprise appearance of the convicted shoplifter movie star who once claimed the earliest JT sighting ever