Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things (A. Argento, 2004)

With her first feature length film, Scarlet Diva, Asia Argento delivered a highly indulgent work that demonstrated that its director had no shortage of ideas and no shortage of love for her leading actress – herself. While Scarlet Diva was wildly unfocused, it was also highly watchable – partly because of Argento’s charisma and partly because of her ability to keep us off guard with risky choices. At the time, I suspected that Argento had a great film within her. After all, she had the pedigree and no shortage of confidence. Her most recent film, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, shows Argento well on her way to accomplishing that goal, progressing even faster in her maturation than I could have anticipated.

Working from the writing of J.T. LeRoy, Argento creates a harrowing nightmare of one young boy’s long-term abuse at the hands of several parental figures, but primarily his drug-addicted mother. Apparently, there has been controversy over LeRoy’s identity and whether or not the stories told within LeRoy’s books are factual. Such matters do not interest me and have little to do with what Argento has accomplished or how the film impacts the viewer. I assumed going in that what I was watching was a fiction. Whether or not the film entertained and had something to say were more important considerations than whether it was based in truth.

In the role of Sarah, the young boy’s mother, Asia Argento takes her own impulsive persona and layers in a dose of Courtney Love-style nastiness. Indeed, with her bleached hair and perpetual petulance, the resemblance to Love is too close to be a mere coincidence. It may seem to some that Argento’s appearance in this critical role is more narcissism, but honestly, who else could pull off the performance that Argento gives us here? The challenge is that Sarah is a woman in her twenties who has lived a life of constant tumult. She must be attractive enough to plausibly lure multiple sexual partners and yet weathered enough to have plausibly lived a life of substance abuse and other risky behavior. At thirty years of age, Argento has been performing in movies since childhood. She grew up with a father who was one of horror’s most accomplished (and most sadistic) directors. She has the background to allow her to approach the role with confidence and succeeds in being both utterly believable and consistently compelling.

At the beginning of the film, we see Jeremiah, the young boy at the center of the tale, returned to his biological mother after living for years with foster parents. He considers them to be his true mother and father and regards Sarah as a complete stranger. It soon becomes clear that Sarah, despite her biological connection, is an utterly worthless parental figure. She is given to ridicule, cruelty, manipulation and promiscuity. We see her with so many sexual partners that we eventually lose track. How long, we wonder, can Jeremiah be exposed to her influence and resist being forever consumed by her irrationality? When Sarah is unable or unwilling to care for Jeremiah, he is placed in the care of his Grandmother and Grandfather whose devotion to religion is revealed to be merely a tool used to justify sickening abuse. Through them, we come to understand Sarah’s chaotic nature and realize the gigantic obstacles Jeremiah must face if he is ever to attain a healthy existence.

After spending some time with his grandparents, Jeremiah oddly finds his mother somewhat comforting by comparison. In a startling sequence, he strives to understand his mother and feel closer to her by assuming her identity. These scenes are handled with tact and creativity while still achieving the desired emotional effect. Argento uses several stylistic touches in order to allow her viewer to consider the events from Jeremiah’s perspective including unusual camera angles, first person perspective and even a few startling scenes of stop-motion animation. These choices elevate the film above the banal and give it an exciting edge of surrealism. Although the film becomes somewhat confusing towards the end with the introduction of a character whose purpose is unclear, the overall journey of mother and son is haunting and thought-provoking. It asks us to consider our origins and how much of our future is determined before we even have a chance to care for ourselves. Not only that, it does so with copious amounts of creativity and passion, indicating that Asia Argento may very well have a second cinematic career should she ever tire of acting.



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