Such is the currency of lies these days that "based on an untrue story" might well be a shrewd tagline, if an unusually honest one. Still, the discovery that teen prostitute-turned-hardcore memoirist JT LeRoy is merely the fanciful invention of failed musician-turned-moneymaking writer Laura Albert hardly boosted the box office of The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, the two-year-old indie shocker that Asia Argento faithfully adapted from the author's "autobiographical" anthology of 2001. (Owing to weak grosses on the coasts, the movie hasn't opened in Minneapolis and, at this point, it probably never will; the DVD will be out on Tuesday.)
"Behind the greatest hoax of our time," declares the distributor's retooled PR, "is the heartbreaking story that started it all." Indeed, taken purely as pulp, Deceitful's fiction is a doozy: Raised by his truck-stop hooker mom on a diet of cold SpaghettiOs and cheese singles, with the occasional methamphetamine tab for dessert, a doe-eyed seven-year-old endures belt-buckle discipline and rape by surrogate dads to become a prepubescent street preacher in God's country. But above all, the heart of this slog through Whitetrashville, U.S.A., is true—at least if you see it as the story of another survivor who not only believed the scuzzy tale, but saw herself in it.
Argento, who at age 16 played an anorexic orphan in her father Dario's aptly named Trauma, stars here as Sarah, a.k.a. Mom. But in this, her second film as actor-director (after Scarlet Diva, itself aptly named), her camera is trained on those doe eyes to such a degree that there's little doubt as to where her identification lies. Matter of fact, if you cut out all the close-ups of young JT (Jimmy Bennett) looking naive but oddly resilient in the face of countless horrors, you'd have...a horror movie (and a short one). "They'd have hung you on a cross," Mom says of the kid's former foster parents before using her fingernail to drive the point home.
Who's abusing whom here? Empowered by what she must have thought was fact, Argento performs the script's maternal atrocities with lurid zest, all but winking at the camera when Mom puts JT to bed in an empty bathtub, then turns a loud trick just around the corner. Whatever her limitations, Argento the actor makes certain that Argento the director doesn't lack for "action"—and that the audience doesn't lack for pain. Actually, the notion of an Italian goth queen reincarnated as a bleached-blond, suthun-accented, scripture-quoting abuser of herself and her kid isn't nearly as punishing as Argento's fashionable refusal to tell us anything much except that hell is for children. In her defense, one could say that the duped filmmaker assumed her terrorist tactics would be redeemed by our understanding that the kid not only survived the ordeal, but used it to become a well-fed star. That apparent triumph was most visible (or risible) in Cannes, where Argento and a wigged "LeRoy" took honors (and abuse) at the same Directors' Fortnight program that included Tarnation, Jonathan Caouette's harrowing account of his own childhood.
So much for happy endings. Albert attributes her god-awful title to the Old Testament, though if anyone could be said to have written the book on deceit, it's her. Well-known victims of the "greatest hoax of our time" are legion, including diehard LeRoy fan Winona Ryder, who appears briefly in the movie as a wide-eyed, puppet-wielding day-care shrink. The director also grants gonzo cameos to Marilyn Manson, Lydia Lunch, Ornella Muti, and Peter Fonda. (What a cast!) Yet Argento's most indelible supporting player might be the bird with crimson plumage that shows up in JT's nightmares and suggests, in its obvious resemblance to her dad's horrific symbols, what another sleepless kid is struggling to overcome. If Deceitful is authentic at all, it's in revealing Asia Argento as the mirror opposite of JT LeRoy. One of these characters is a real artist—or at least a true believer in the cathartic power of autobiography.
The evidence is even plainer in Scarlet Diva (also available on DVD), Argento's monumentally trashy, supremely entertaining fictionalization of her own tabloid melodrama, wherein she plays a jet-setting, Special K-snorting movie star named Anna Battista. Everybody in this depraved, distaff La Dolce Vita wants a piece of the self-described "lonely girl" and aspiring "directress"—and almost everybody gets one. Indeed, the narrative, if you could call it that, follows our glassy-eyed heroine from one perverse sexual encounter to another—including the onanistic scene, set to Nina Simone's "Wild Is the Wind," of Anna shaving and then sniffing her armpits, applying and then smearing lipstick. "Any artist is a prostitute," we're told at one point. JT LeRoy—trick-turner par excellence—would surely agree.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.