The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things (2006)

Christian Martius

Based on the 'autobiographical' work of J.T. Leroy, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things announces itself as 'unreliable'.

The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things

Director: Asia Argento
Cast: Asia Argento, Jimmy Bennett, Dylan Sprouse, Cole Sprouse, Peter Fonda
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Palm Pictures
First date: 2006
US Release Date: 2006-03-10 (Limited release)

Based on the "autobiographical" work of J.T. Leroy, an author who may or may not be a fictional construct, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things announces itself as "unreliable." Asia Argento's film opens and ends with a dog-eared, underlined copy of the book. One page reveals the Biblical source of the title originates, "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?"

The tale that follows is told from a child's point of view. Removed from his foster home and returned to a troubled and abusive mother, seven-year-old Jeremiah (Jimmy Bennett) must contend with her misplaced need and rampant irresponsibility. On their reunion, Sarah (Asia Argento) announces, "I fought for you and you'll have fight for me, you're all I've got." From here he proceeds to expose him to abusive men and painful situations, entirely unable to care for him.

Sleeping in the bathroom of a man Sarah has just met, Jeremiah clings to his ragged smiley face cushion, surrounded by Playboy pictures and the sound of sexual congress. Left alone for days in a locked house, living on Kraft cheese slices, he draws a dozen or so faces on a wall, childlike but also tellingly grotesque. This is the world as he sees it. The camera closes in on one of drawings, then cuts directly to a similar expression on the face of the man who returns to the house to rape him.

Following this ordeal, Jeremiah goes into hospital, therapy, and a care facility, where once again the grown-up world is a place of unremitting cruelty. The therapist (Winona Ryder) bullies him to admit to his molestation, forcing him to say, "It's not the little boy's fault" by threatening punishment if he doesn't. Whether he says it is or not, the boy feels at fault. His subsequent guardian, his grandfather (Peter Fonda), continues this pattern, deploying the weapon of sanctimonious religious instruction. Sarah and the grandfather both use "the belt" on Jeremiah, this violence dissolving the seeming difference between their secular and devout frames of reference.

Formally, Jeremiah's sense of disorder is realised in close-ups of his tormentors' mouths forming ugly words or panning shots taken from the diminutive height of a child. His interior struggle is made visual in garish animations of malevolent birds and lost limbs. His "split" self is literalised when an older version of Jeremiah is played by both Dylan and Cole Sprouse, as well as the actor who plays his mother, Asia Argento. Telling Jeremiah she originally wanted a girl, the mother points out their physical similarities, then transforms Jeremiah with clothes, makeup, and a wig. Wearing this costume within the reach of one of his mother's dissolute partners (Marilyn Manson), the boy suffers more abuse, this time as he is played by Argento.

The suspension of disbelief required for this actor-switching suggests the film's interest in how fantasy works, as a means to survive unbearable pain as well as a means to sell an idea. The tensions between the real and the unreal underline Jeremiah's confusion as it creates yours. When Jeremiah scribbles a note to his mother -- "I love you, goodbye" -- The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things seems to offer a brief moment of narrative grace, the protagonist's escape. But it provides little in terms of relief from the barrage of adult irresponsibility on display. A work of fiction representing the cruelty and neglect that are common in the real world, it indicts individual adults as well as the "care system" that only perpetuates abuse. It is in this painful evocation that the film appears most reliable, regardless of any debate over an author's veracity.





Laura Nyro's "Save the Country" Calls Out from the Past

Laura Nyro, a witchy, queer, ethnic Russian Jew, died young, but her non-conformist anthem, "Save the Country", carries forth to these troubled times.


Journalist Jonathan Cott's Interviews, Captured

With his wide-ranging interviews, Jonathan Cott explores "the indispensable and transformative powers of the imagination."

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Coronavirus and the Culture Wars

Infodemics, conspiracies -- fault lines beneath the Fractured States of America tremble in this time of global pandemic, amplify splinters, fractures, and fissures past and present.


'Switched-On Seeker' Is an Imaginative Electronic Reimagining of Mikal Cronin's Latest LP

Listeners who prefer dense rock/pop timbres will no doubt prefer Mikal Cronin's 'Seeker'. However, 'Switched-On Seeker' will surely delight fans of smaller-scale electronic filters.


IYEARA Heighten the Tension on Remix of Mark Lanegan's "Playing Nero" (premiere)

Britsh trio IYEARA offer the first taste of a forthcoming reworking of Mark Lanegan's Somebody's Knocking with a remix of "Playing Nero".


Pottery Take Us Deep Into the Funky and Absurd on 'Welcome to Bobby's Motel'

With Welcome to Bobby's Motel, Pottery have crafted songs to cleanse your musical pallet and keep you firmly on the tips of your toes.


Counterbalance 23: Bob Dylan - 'Blood on the Tracks'

Bob Dylan makes his third appearance on the Acclaimed Music list with his 1975 album, Blood on the Tracks. Counterbalance’s Eric Klinger and Jason Mendelsohn are planting their stories in the press.


Luke Cissell Creates Dreamy, Electronic Soundscapes on the Eclectic 'Nightside'

Nightside, the new album from composer and multi-instrumentalist Luke Cissell, is largely synthetic and electronic but contains a great deal of warmth and melody.


Bibio Discusses 'Sleep on the Wing' and Why His Dreams Are of the Countryside

"I think even if I lived in the heart of Tokyo, I'd still make music that reminds people of the countryside because it's where my dreams often take me," says Bibio (aka Stephen Wilkinson) of his music and his new rustic EP.

Reading Pandemics

Pandemic, Hope, Defiance, and Protest in 'Romeo and Juliet'

Shakespeare's well known romantic tale Romeo and Juliet, written during a pandemic, has a surprisingly hopeful message about defiance and protest.


A Family Visit Turns to Guerrilla Warfare in 'The Truth'

Catherine Deneuve plays an imperious but fading actress who can't stop being cruel to the people around her in Hirokazu Koreeda's secrets- and betrayal-packed melodrama, The Truth.


The Top 20 Punk Protest Songs for July 4th

As punk music history verifies, American citizenry are not all shiny, happy people. These 20 songs reflect the other side of patriotism -- free speech brandished by the brave and uncouth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.