Lending a winning imprimatur to Asia Argento’s bloated adaptation of JT LeRoy’s novel The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, French director Gaspar Noé — a connoisseur of excess if ever there was — gushed that the film had “the most incredible scenes of pedophilia I’ve ever seen.” Asked by an interviewer if that was a good thing, Noé shrugged and said, “It’s real.”
No, it isn’t, unless you believe in the reality of a movie based on a fraudulent “semi-autobiographical” novel by a West Virginia male prostitute who never existed outside the racy imagination of a hustler of a different stripe — a Brooklyn-born woman whose true genius turns out to have been for networking, publicity and bald-faced lying to gullible writers, publishers agog for the next best-seller, and book reviewers all the way up the scale to The New York Times. Though the production notes for the movie give no indication of whether Argento knew (or, more significantly, cared) that she’d been had, they’re laden with sheepish quotation marks and face-saving downgrades of the novel to a “Warholian-style literary hoax.” But the movie’s distributor, Palm Pictures, still wants you to take Mr. LeRoy seriously: A note implores reviewers not to reveal important plot points about “his” story.
You would have to have been vacationing on Mars lately not to know that Mr. LeRoy and his book are the joint fictional creations of musicians Laura Albert, her former husband Geoffrey Knoop, and his half-sister Savannah, who posed as LeRoy for interviews, readings and other publicity stunts in a blond wig, big glasses and a barely audible whisper. Or that Knoop spilled the beans when his marriage fell apart and now reportedly has his own movie deal on the boil. Or that LeRoy blind-sided a host of literary and pop-culture types with well-known appetites for extremity, among them Courtney Love, Winona Ryder (whose support won her a minor role in the movie as an incompetent therapist), Marilyn Manson (who plays one of Mom’s feckless boyfriends) and authors Mary Gaitskill and Dennis Cooper, both of whom became LeRoy’s confidantes. Only Cooper, who has written so much more persuasively about similar subject matter, has been honest enough to admit that he feels like a fool. Most of the others blathered on, as victims of literary deception will when cornered, about “imaginative truth,” “higher realities” and “uncompromising vision.”
My ass. Like The Heart Is Deceitful the book (a sublimely accurate title for the author if not her literary creation), the movie is a gratuitously arty piece of child pornography carelessly knocked off from the grunge school of Harmony Korine, Larry Clark and Vincent Gallo. There’s barely a story: An angelic-looking lad named Jeremiah (played at various vulnerable ages by Jimmy Bennett and twins Cole and Dylan Sprouse) is wrestled away from loving foster parents by his mother (Argento, in a platinum shag and magenta lips blatantly modeled on Love), a truck-stop hooker and drug addict who — made monstrous by tight close-ups, show-offy camera angles and nonstop overacting — slaps him around, dopes him, seduces him, cross-dresses him and exposes him to beatings, whippings and rape from a succession of lovers and johns. By way of variety, Jeremiah is periodically snatched by his sadistic grandparents (Peter Fonda and Ornella Muti), who, when not taking a strap to him themselves, tart the pretty little fellow up in nice suits to proselytize for their unsavory brand of fundamentalist Christianity. I tremble to think what the boys who play LeRoy thought they were doing in the movie.
Like so many new directors who have nothing on their minds but pushing envelopes, Argento rubs our faces endlessly and pointlessly in sordid detail and then, almost as an afterthought, solicits our sympathy for both oppressors and oppressed, glibly implying that they’re all simultaneously tragic victims of ?society and plucky survivors. Cannily pimping the fuzzy line between fiction, memoir and pathological lying, The Heart Is Deceitful is a degraded and degrading film, of interest only because it’s symptomatic of so much that’s wrong with the drearily repetitive tabloid mentality that has infected not just the news media, but the whole culture industry: the strange mix of gullibility and cynicism that governs our appetite for scandal; the eager identification with victims and (covertly) their aggressors; the willingness to rush anything into print or image that will cater to public prurience. On balance, I’d say it’s a good thing that the lid has come off child abuse, for too long a taboo topic for filmmakers. But I haven’t seen many movies that do the subject justice without cheapening it, and it’s ironic that the best of the bunch — Andrew Jarecki’s documentary Capturing the Friedmans — rightly suggests that the problem isn’t so much a rise in the sexual mistreatment of children as a rise in media-fed public hysteria about it. Sleazy as it is, The Heart Is Deceitful will feed the hungry, as will the equally worthless upcoming Robin Williams film The Night Listener, based on an Armistead Maupin story featuring a boy surely modeled on LeRoy. And the brothers Weinstein, ever ready to pounce on a Trend, have just announced plans to produce a biopic of the fictitious author, based on several articles in The New York Times. Unmasked or not, this serviceable little man seems set for as long a shelf life as it takes for those who profit from his faux pathos to clean up.
In Duck Season, two adolescent boys, Flama (Daniel Miranda) and Moko (Diego Cataño), are left alone for a long afternoon in the cramped apartment of a drab Mexican housing project. Flama’s anxious mom has gone somewhere with a tray of food, but little is made of her absence, and unlike in The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, the boys are neither abandoned nor exploited by writer-director Fernando Eimbcke, who gives them a soulful life that perhaps can only be found when the noisy tech-toys we use to blot out the lonely voices in our heads are silenced. Just as the boys are settling down to a rowdy afternoon of Halo on the XBox, the power goes out. Then a young neighbor, Rita (Danny Perea), shows up to bake a cake (twice). And a pizza-delivery man (Enrique Arreola) with the potentially meaningful name of Ulises camps out in the apartment because the boys won’t pay.
Not much else happens, give or take a few minutes spent shooting up the treasured tchotchkesof Flama’s divorcing parents with a BB gun. Time slows down, and sounds normally drowned out by high-tech living — like a dripping tap — become thunder claps. Duck Season looks lovely in black-and-white, but if the movie has a fault, it’s the over-stylized shooting style — yes, Eimbcke cut his teeth making rock videos — with which first-time filmmakers are prone to over-embellish the great stories they have to tell. But if a shot of Rita, viewed over a dish of shivering Jell-O from deep inside a refrigerator, is perhaps more culinary cinematography than the film requires, it’s a small price to pay for Eimbcke’s precocious grasp of the inchoate emotional worlds of the young, and the way that the smallest quotidian details offer up the DNA of life. In one funny and heart-stopping scene, Flama’s new pals try to jolly him out of his misery over his parents’ divorce by pointing to his red hair as evidence that he’s adopted. In another, Ulises imagines for himself a landscape that compensates for his foregone career as an ethologist. In the ebb and flow of shifting alliances, and the confiding of dreams, fears and disappointments that gives way to sudden bursts of heedless cruelty and kindness, Eimbcke has found a sweet and moving way to make concrete the kids’ blind search for meaning and comfort. As the day draws to a close, no life is changed forever, but no one leaves empty-handed either. Duck Season is not (yet) the work of a great filmmaker, but it’s the kind of movie in which a fledgling director traps his talent in a bottle and saves it for next time.
THE HEART IS DECEITFUL ABOVE ALL THINGS | Directed by ASIA ARGENTO | Written by ARGENTO and ALESSANDRO MAGANIA | Based on the book by JT LeROY | Produced by CHRIS HANLEY and ALAIN DE LA MATA | Released by Palm Pictures | At Nuart
DUCK SEASON | Written and directed by FERNANDO EIMBCKE | Produced by CHRISTIAN VALDELIÈVRE | Released by Warner Independent Pictures | At Sunset 5, Monica 4-Plex and Playhouse 7
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.