The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things
2004Director: Asia Argento
Cast: Asia Argento, Cole and Dylan Sprouse, Jimmy Bennett
sia Argento’s camera peers into the text of The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things in the credit sequence of its eponymous film adaptation, with phrases underlined and notes scattered across the pages. How fitting that JT LeRoy should turn out a fake long after the film’s production, as the credits now constitute an abstract of what follows: recollections of a child’s intense feelings as brought on by the adult world, with an underlying sense of that world’s dishonesty that is nonetheless overcome by suspension of disbelief, or rather, for a child, a suspension of all beliefs.
Which isn’t to suggest Argento herself didn’t believe in LeRoy. She’s fairly scrupulous in terms of the material she’s selected, but in terms of what she’s excised, one connotes she apparently draws the line at pre-teen hookers and any direct notion of the masochistic pleasure kid-hero Jeremiah (Jimmy Bennett at age 8; Cole and Dylan Sprouse at age 12) adapts to withstand the beatings of his draconic grandpa (a nondescript Peter Fonda). What we do see of corporal punishment is emblematic of both Argento’s strengths and weaknesses as a director. Grandpa berates and then slaps Jeremiah’s dirty choirboy of a playmate (John Robinson, straining too hard to appear sullen, and certainly better off meandering through the cypher-populated halls of Elephant High). Cut to Jeremiah, jaws agape. Bad, ineptly modulated performances across the board, but the scene works: Jeremiah feels neither vicarious pain nor vicarious pleasure, but instead channels that moment in childhood where we’re too busy navigating through moral culpability and sadistic glee to realize it’s impolite to gawk. It’s ritualistic how the three stand there, engaging in neither a punishment nor a lesson but instead an exercise. This is Argento’s talent: to turn victims and oppressors alike into participants. Likewise, Jeremiah’s first whipping is rendered fair and just via a POV shot of Sarah’s this-is-for-your-own-good smile, and his first experience of sexual assault cuts away to an insert of the pedophile’s hand and Jeremiah’s own firmly clasped together.
Participation also characterizes Jeremiah’s relationship with erstwhile mommy Sarah, played by Argento herself (in the book, 18; here, for plausibility’s sake, 23). She alternates between naively playing House with Jeremiah—clad in the requisite 50s-era housewife get-up, eager to pretend that feeding him cold Spaghetti-Os is sufficiently motherly—and being the callous bitch, blowing smoke in his face at the thought that he’s adopted his foster parents’ values. Incredibly negligent but incredibly love-starved, she quickly melds herself and the reluctant Jeremiah together without even trying especially hard: Jeremiah knows he must’ve done something wrong, if only to explain his distress, so perhaps he deserves her in his life.
Heart has a deceptively desultory structure where no moral system or “new daddy” seems to hold much water upon introduction, but each accumulates ideas which make an atavistic reappearance at the most inopportune of times. Not exactly a steadfast kid, Jeremiah renounces years of catechism at the drop of a hat, but still prays for Sarah when she’s loveless and distraught (to no avail). Likewise, he slides willingly into Sarah’s ideal of him as a beautiful girl, a simulacrum of her younger, “innocent” self. In the film’s best and most challenging scene, Argento makes the audience complicit in believing that Jeremiah can take Sarah’s place, as she plays Jeremiah playing Sarah. Briefly, we’re made to feel as monstrous as Jeremiah’s abuser—here a dopey loser played by Marilyn Manson—but also as dazed as Jeremiah himself. It refutes the familiar responses every other film about sexual abuse has trained us to summon, and fittingly so, because Heart is about being forcibly trained how to respond, both as a child and as an audience member.
At the same time, this film is painfully aware of the inadequacy of any response, and that childhood fantasia is inextricably tied to the hallucinations and cacophonous emotions of adulthood. We believe that when Jeremiah’s drawn stick-figures all over the walls and Sarah’s latest ex-boyfriend Emerson (Jeremy Renner), walks in, newly abandoned, that the man’s sadness will overpower his anger, and that a glance up at one of the frown-y faces on the wall will signal in the man a brief regression to Jeremiah’s state–pure powerlessness. We can’t believe, however, that when Sarah screams, “the coal is bleeding!” from the basement of final paramour Chester (Jeremy Sisto), the coal actually is bleeding, as Jeremiah imagines it when he pretends to torture it in play; that would just be way, way too fucked up.
Herein lies my incredulity for anyone who bought the LeRoy ruse early in the game. Genuine autobiography tends toward passive but unerringly sensitive observers: I’m thinking of Cameron Crowe and Almost Famous or Dito Montiel and A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. One only has to look at the varying work of Bennett, who throws a tantrum with such believable lack of restraint that it would come as no surprise to discover that Argento herself actually kidnapped and chronically mistreated the kid, mid-production, and the Sprouse brothers, utterly self-possessed by comparison but fairly nuts in handling that self-possession, to grok the degree of maturation here. And it’s all thanks to a little tough-minded conditioning, not to mention some ambiguously psychotropic meds Sarah keeps Jeremiah hooked on.
So why, then, does Jeremiah love Sarah? She’s a Variety Pak of a mom, encompassing all the attitudes he’s come to know, believe, and reject—fire-and-brimstone preaching, delirium, fun and games, the whole enchilada—and she guides him away from those too simplistic to fathom the variety of his feelings. And why does Sarah love Jeremiah? She’s a woman so lusted after by men that she can only love things, and Jeremiah, for better worse, is a thing, amorphous and in flux. Most let’s-drag-a-cute-kid-through-unending-degradation movies work overtime to make the kid’s suffering duly sympathetic and ignore the grown-ups. What sets Argento apart is the way she infuses Jeremiah with all the doubt and confusion of genuine childhood, and Sarah with a struggle to love all her own; and better still, ensuring that these soul- and blood-mates are still at war even as they ride off into the sunset.