As far as mainstream sex symbols go, few are willing to plumb the depths of depravity as fully and as frequently as Asia Argento. This is significant not only in that it opens her to a world of film roles at which other actresses would likely scoff, but also because her magnetism infuses even her most deplorable characters with an intrinsic, unquantifiable duende that makes other characters’ attractions to them a little more explicable. No film I’ve seen of hers demonstrates this more definitively that The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, which she also co-wrote and directed from the faux autobiographical works of JT LeRoy.
It is important that the film’s — and the source material’s — lack of authenticity be addressed in any critical assessment of the work. Argento begins her film with a close-up of what is presumably her personal copy of the book The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, complete with marginalia and annotations. The audience is immediately aware of the artifice of the film; this is an adaptation, this is playacting. Filmmakers such as Godard, Fellini, and Bergman have used similar framing devices to attune their audiences to the inhere lie of the cinema, that what we see as active, moving documents of life are nothing more than manufactured images flickering across in the darkness. This can be used to draw attention to the philosophical or thematic aspects of a film, or simply to give an audience a moment of cathartic release in which they can let go of their breath, sit back in their seats, and assure themselves, Yes, it was only a movie. In The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, it does give the audience a certain leeway; it tells us it’s okay to watch passively, ineffectually, as countless censurable acts occur before us.
It’s one thing that we are given this amnesty within the framework of the cinema, but it is still disconcerting when we realize that Argento made her film before it was publicly announced that JT LeRoy was in fact a literary construction, no more a real person than Huckleberry Finn or Kilgore Trout, and that she may very well have made her film under the pretenses of docudrama rather than of fiction.
Argento plays Sarah, a 23 year old junkie prostitute who has recently reacquired custody of her son Jeremiah (played by Jimmy Bennett at age 7, and later by Dylan and Sole Sprouse). The plot of the film — which is to say the concurrent theme of its loosely assembled, ragged strands of a story — follows Sarah and her innumerable misguided abuses of maternal authority. Leaving her home with her and her son’s belongings stuffed into a garbage bag, Sarah jumps from man to man, home to home, town to town, with Jeremiah in tow, periodically leaving him in a car or at the home of her most recently jilted lover; while Sarah gallivants about, getting her money from hooking and her food from trash cans, Jeremiah is left with a string of unqualified surrogate fathers. Most of them are left incognizant in Sarah’s wake, all of them are abusive. Time and time again, we are given glimmers of hope, only to have them extinguished within seconds: one of Sarah’s countless men shows sympathy for the newly orphaned child, before pathetically raping him; another offers Jeremiah money for a fresh meal to amend his mother’s negligence, then uses the diversion to leave and drive off without Sarah or Jeremiah.
One wonders why such an inept and unwilling mother would want a child so badly. Sarah is unnervingly blunt when she insists, “I’m your mother, all right? Can’t say I wanted you. Can’t say I didn’t do a rabbit’s tricks to try an’ get rid of you. If my father’d let me, you’d long been flushed down some toilet, you understand?” What is uniquely disconcerting about the scene — and about Argento’s delivery, especially — is that Sarah doesn’t say this with remorse, nor does she say it as a warning. Sarah’s deplorable account of Jeremiah’s unwelcome entry into the world is stated plainly, as a fact, as information meant to give her son a sense of context. In spite of this, Sarah is prone to inexplicable and incongruous moments of tenderness and affection for her son. And just as shadows are darkest in the brightest light, her failings and transgressions as a mother become doubly afflictive when considered alongside her few maternal moments.
Jeremiah, finally seeming orphaned for good, bounces around for the next several years, in which we learn: Peter Fonda makes for a creepy grandfather, Ben Foster makes for a creepy cousin, Wynona Ryder makes for a creepy counselor, and, well, basically everyone within Jeremiah’s sphere is creepy and, in some way, mentally or morally damaged. Every figure of authority leads Jeremiah into temptation, and then punishes him for succumbing to it. It’s a miracle he functions as well as he does — which is not to say he functions well, mind you, but he doesn’t become a catatonic or a suicide, which, given the circumstances, is pretty damn impressive.
The most unsettling aspect of the film is that Sarah is, astonishingly, the most constant and reliable force in Jeremiah’s life. For all the distant relatives and the truck stop hookups and jilted husbands and fiancés, Sarah is the one person always comes back to Jeremiah. Is this why he dabbles in transvestitism? Why he attempts to seduce his mother’s boyfriends? Or perhaps some form of Stockholm Syndrome? I can only assume that’s what Argento is driving at, for she is too concerned with the verisimilitude of her characters’ depravity to do more than hint at — if not accidentally stumble upon — that kind of psychological depth.
What Argento has crafted is a deeply disquieting film about the vulnerability of youth and the fallibility of icons and idols, be they personal, religious, or other. As a visceral, evocative, and purely demonstrative work, it succeeds at its vocation. What Argento has failed to do, however, is offer any kind of redemption for her characters. It’s no accident that Sarah’s final abduction of Jeremiah seems at once liberating and binding; he is so damaged by his upbringing that perpetuating this debauched cycle may well be the only way he can survive in the world. But what message do we take from this? Such are the unjust ways of the world? How blind and senseless we humans are? This kind of vacant morality worked superlatively in a film like Elephant; but as Gus Van Sant demonstrated when he applied the same technique to Last Days, sometimes it represents nothing more than an empty nihilism on behalf of both the characters and their progenitors.