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2 reviews, 21 user ratings

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Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"A film meant to challenge, inspire and piss off viewers inequal measure"
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2005 SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST FILM FESTIVAL: In his comments on the song “Heart of Gold” in the liner notes for the anthology “Decade”, Neil Young famously wrote that its success “put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw some interesting people there.” I have no idea if Asia Argento is a Neil Young fan but I can almost certainly say that she would agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment.

With her famous name (her father, of course, is the legendary horror director Dario Argento), extraordinary beauty and her equally impressive acting chops, she could be one of the biggest actresses in the world if she wanted to be. However, instead of looking for the kind of scripts that would ensure such a breakthrough with critics and audiences, she seems to have dedicated her career to seeking out the kind of dark material that sends even the hardiest of viewers for the hills. Instead of appearing in surefire hits like “The World is Not Enough” or “Mission Impossible 2", both of which she was offered, she instead gravitated to the more off-beat likes of Abel Ferrara’s “New Rose Hotel”. Even the films that she made with her father–“Trauma,” “The Stendhal Syndrome” and “The Phantom of the Opera”–were anything but walks in the park as she endured the kind of physically and emotionally brutal material (which must have been exacerbated considering that her father was the man behind the camera) that even Jennifer Jason Leigh might have considered to be a bit too much. That she would willingly play such roles is a testament to her bravery and that she could pull them off (especially in “The Stendhal Syndrome, where her work is one of the greatest acting performances I have ever seen in a horror film) is a testament to her talent and it is one of those sad ironies that if she is known at all in America beyond horror-cult fanatics, it is from her role as the girl in “XXX”, a role which required neither bravery nor talent.

In recent years, she has begun to branch off into directing but she still refuses to play things safe. Her first film, 2002's “Scarlet Diva” was a twisted, semi-autobiographical examination of a famous young actress, not at all unlike Argento herself, whose life is spiraling apart as a direct result of her own self-absorbed, self-indulgent ways. Instead of trying to make her character, which she played herself, a poor little victim of circumstances, Argento willfully made her as annoying and self-destructive as she possibly could, knowing full well that critics and audiences would interpret her character’s considerable flaws as her own, and then dared you to still feel a degree of empathy for her. Somehow, it worked and the result was, while clearly not for everyone, one of the more striking directorial debuts in recent years.

Yet even those enraptured by the sordidness of “Scarlet Diva” may find themselves taken aback by the sheer unpleasantness of her new film, “The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things”, a film which makes her previous work seem like walks in the park by comparison. The film is based on several short stories by acclaimed writer J.T. LeRoy and chronicles his childhood, which, based on the evidence here, was a nightmare that would have provided both Pasolini and Jerry Springer with a lifetime of material. According to him, he was born to wild child Sarah, the rebellious daughter of strictly religious parents, when she was 15, he was put into a foster home until the age of seven, when she inexplicably came back into his life and took custody of him again. However, she had not changed her ways and dragged her child into a sordid world of truck stops, drugs, ever-changing boyfriends and a never-ending stream of physical, emotional and sexual abuse, even to the point of dressing him as a girl in order to pass him off as her sister. Finally, at the age of 14, he found himself in a crisis center and was encouraged to put his thoughts and feelings into writing.

Right from the start, Argento plunges viewers into the abyss by opening with the seven-year-old Jeremiah (Jimmy Bennett) being taken from what appears to be a loving foster home and returned to Sarah (Argento). Just so there is no confusing this with a cheerful reunion, Sarah refuses to let her son speak on the phone to his former foster parents, serves him a pathetic meal of Spaghetti-O’s that she can’t even bother to heat and coldly informs him “If my father had let me, you would have long been flushed down some toilet.” And yet, these are the moments that Jeremiah will one day look back on as the highlights; before long, Sarah packs up their meager possessions in trash bags and hits the road, feeding the kid speed in order to keep him awake.

As they bomb through the southern United States, Sarah drags him through a nightmarish tour of sleazy hovels and unspeakable brutalities. After messing up the pillow that he has been forced to sleep on in the bathtub, for example, Sarah not only goads her latest boyfriend into walloping him with a belt, she helpfully pulls down his pants to speed things up. Despite all of this, mother and son begin to . . . well, “bond” is perhaps too strong of a word, but when two people find themselves dumpster-diving every day, a certain relationship is bound to develop and when Sarah marries a seemingly stable guy (Jeremy Renner), it looks as though things may be looking up, even though the two leave Jeremiah locked up in the house while they go to Atlantic City on their honeymoon. During that trip, Sarah runs off and when the guy returns, he takes his frustrations out on the boy in a particularly repellent manner possible and lands him in the hospital.

After enduring some particularly unhelpful treatments with a therapist (Winona Ryder in one of the film’s odder cameos), Jeremiah is claimed by his grandmother (Ornella Muti) and taken home to West Virginia. Inevitably, his questionable upbringing clashes with his devoutly religious upbringing; his grandfather (Peter Fonda) greets him with “The way of the wicked is an abomination of the Lord” and Jeremiah responds with the opening verse of “Anarchy in the U.K.” (There is some common ground, mostly in the way that both worlds use belts as disciplinary devices.) Nevertheless, he gets his first stable home that he has known in a while and when we next see him, three years have passed and Jeremiah (now played alternately by twins Dylan and Cole Sprouse) is preaching salvation on the streets until Sarah turns up once again to drag him into even more hellish misadventures.

For most people, “The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things” will seem like nothing more than a 97-minute freak-show that has nothing more on its mind than depicting sordid behavior and cruelty to children in the most disgusting manner possible. Some may also question the narrative logic of the story, especially the notion that the self-absorbed Sarah would relentlessly pop up to reclaim Jeremiah even though she spends all of their time together either ignoring him at best or finding new ways of demonstrating what the worst could possibly entail. I also have questions with the final scene, which I suppose has to be taken as a (failed) metaphor because there is no way that it could have possibly occurred in the real world. Although I have never read LeRoy’s stories, I suspect that those qualities are inherent to them as well and I also suspect that his voice captivate readers to such a compelling degree that they overlook such flaws. By losing that specific voice, the inevitable result of translating his work to another medium, such flaws are more difficult to ignore and there are times when they prove to be downright distracting.

And yet, while Argento doesn’t overcome those narrative glitches, what she does do here, both as a director and actress, is quite extraordinary at times. Although there is plenty of lurid material on display, she depicts them in such a way that they never spill over into crude exploitation while still losing none of their power or hideousness. There is one sequence, in which Jeremiah, dressed in his mother’s nightgown, has an especially twisted encounter with her latest boyfriend (Marilyn Manson) that would seem to be simply impossible to present to even the most tolerant audiences; Argento’s solution may seem, on the surface, to be a kind of cop-out but as the scene progresses, it takes on a strange beauty that makes it one of the most memorable things about the film.

Additionally, the film shows a definite growth in her capabilities as a filmmaker since “Scarlet Diva”. That film felt more like a deeply personal confessional diary and was, for the most part, a one-woman show. With its large cast of characters and wider scope, this film is a far more elaborate and complicated endeavor and she rises up to the challenge with work that shows that she is more than a one-trick pony. Thanks to the considerable efforts of cinematogapher Eric Alan Edwards (who took over for the late Jean-Yves Escoffier, whose work on “Gummo” was clearly a key influence), the film has a rough beauty to its look that perfectly suits the material without ever seeming too fussy or overdone. Even when she does overstep her bounds, such as the use of a pair of animated birds that pop up during especially traumatic moments (which look like nothing so much as an odd homage to her father’s film “Opera”), there is something so touchingly guileless about it that it doesn’t come off as bad as it might have in the hands of a more cynical filmmaker.

Argento also demonstrate a surprisingly strong facility for working with actors. A film like this, in which actors are being asked to do things that could be quite embarrassing in the wrong hands, requires a strong hand to make the performers comfortable enough to dig in to the material without holding back or going over the top into scenery-chewing madness. Argento provides that hand and she gets a lot of good performances, especially from the kids playing Jeremiah. I don’t know how she got those performances, and a part of me really doesn’t want to know, but the results are a trio of performances that are genuinely haunting and sad. (It is especially telling that I was unaware that the older Jeremiah was being played by alternating twins until I saw the end credits.) As for her own acting, Argento fearlessly tackles the role of Sarah with a ferocity that is rarely seen on movie screens these days. Something about this monster has tapped into Argento and she responds with a performance that plunges fully into the white-trash roots of the character without ever coming off as condescending. (The only flaw is her heavy Italian accent, which overwhelms her attempts at a southern drawl and is explained away with a bit of business so ridiculous that it probably should have been dropped.)

“The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things” is the kind of film for which such mundane terms as “good” and “bad” are irrelevant. Most will find it simply unwatchable and speculate about the mental health of those who would make it and those who would admire it. I wouldn’t argue with such observations but I would disagree with them. Like an early punk record, the film is meant to challenge and inspire and piss people off and I assure you that it did all of those things to me in spades. Spiked with moments of true brilliance, it is the kind of provocation that sends most viewers running for the exits and the remaining few convinced that, good or bad, they have seen something that they will never forget.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=10438&reviewer=389
originally posted: 03/13/05 22:44:10
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Toronto Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 San Francisco Independent Film Festival. For more in the 2005 San Francisco Independent Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 SXSW Film Festival. For more in the 2005 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Philadelphia Film Festival. For more in the 2005 Philadelphia Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Independent Film Festival of Boston. For more in the 2005 Independent Film Festival of Boston series, click here.

User Comments

6/03/09 Christy Excuse me. There ain't no free lunches in this country. And don't go spending your whole li 3 stars
10/11/08 mary i love it and marily nmanson is the best 5 stars
7/06/08 John Millheim Man is thie movie intense, a kid and his mom with alot of abuse.wow 5 stars
7/01/07 Peyton ITS GREAT!! but kinda confuzing but Cole sprouse did a good job so did dylan! luvyu kole xo 5 stars
6/13/07 Angelica I want to watch it! I'm getting the book! 5 stars
5/21/07 ahley this movie was great dylan and cole did a great job in this movie 5 stars
3/05/07 Possum ... I cried just watching the trailer, I can't watch it cos I'm only 14 4 stars
12/30/06 William Goss Exhausting depiction of child neglect is exceedingly unpleasant and downright petty. 1 stars
12/03/06 Spencer It was pretty good---sad, but good. 4 stars
8/16/06 JEFF I WANT TO SEE IT 1 stars
7/07/06 Rocky Turned it off after 45 minutes...like watching child abuse. Did I miss anything? 2 stars
3/13/06 Suzi Loved it ! 5 stars
2/08/06 Frank V For fans of Asia, and of challenging cinema... 4 stars
1/13/06 GJ I worked on this film. Its as bad as Asia was to the cast and crew. 1 stars
11/16/05 carla i think it is very sweet i love cole sprouse lol he is great at the part its so the bomb 5 stars
10/27/05 angelina it was the best movie ever 5 stars
10/01/05 jasmyn fitzgerald omg it waz so great i want to watch it again 5 stars
4/18/05 Alex Murphy Just saw at the Philadelphia Film Fest. Abslutely amazing. Incredible work by Argento. 5 stars
2/26/05 bp ick! 1 stars
10/20/04 Isobel Manson is the best! 5 stars
10/08/04 Null The movie was great. I was impressed by Manson's performance. 5 stars
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  10-Mar-2006 (R)
  DVD: 06-Jun-2006



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