Among the surprises at the US premiere of Asia Argento’s film The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things were the Pabst Blue Ribbon tall boys passed out to the huddled hipster masses in the Anthology Film Archives’ interminable stairway line, the pre-screening absence of Argento, and the presence of Lou Reed, wearing black leather pants, natch, and a gray cotton hoodie. The film, based on J. T. LeRoy’s story cycle of the same name, kicked off the twelfth annual New York Underground Film Festival, and Lou, apparently still “underground,” was charged with reading a touching if rambling statement by LeRoy that described his adolescent love of hiding in Asian movie theaters and his delight that his therapist of eleven years would finally be able to see all the images from his tortured childhood.
Argento, whose flight was delayed, is something of a star and sex symbol in her native Italy and, of course, the daughter of arty-horror director Dario Argento. Her film recalls Alison Maclean’s Jesus’ Son and Larry Clark’s Another Day in Paradise: It starts in the toilet and spirals downward from there. Plot is subordinated to episodic vignettes in which mood, memory, and hallucination murkily illuminate the motivations behind the characters’ self-destructive actions. Unsurprisingly, heroin is the drug of choice in all three films. But Argento’s effort is at once more expert and affecting than these and other junky travelogues, largely due to the delicate balance of debasement and tenderness in LeRoy’s work. It also doesn’t hurt that Heart is, despite its horrific context, a cute child’s coming-of-age story. Other, generally European examples of this often treacly subgenreMy Life as a Dog, Cinema Paradisoare among my most hated movies, so it’s to Argento’s credit that I didn’t find myself barking bile at the screen.
It’s to her even greater credit that, despite enlisting a parade of celebrities (Peter Fonda, Winona Ryder, Marilyn Manson, Lydia Lunch, Tim Armstrong, Billy Corgan, Hasil Adkins), she delivers a genuinely moving work that avoids nu-hipster slumming. Even Manson, bereft of hair extensions, ghoul makeup, and glass eyes, comports himself admirably (though his character does not). Much of the film’s success turns on Argento’s own fearless, self-lacerating performance as Sarah, the itinerant, lot-lizard prostitute who drags her young son, Jeremiah, through the circles of her personal hell. A perfect genetic splice of Uma Thurman and pre-makeover Courtney Love, Argento gives her all, and at times, it’s more than one wants. Seeing her appear for the Q&A after the screeningsoft-spoken, doped-out or jet-lagged, hair restored to an Italianate black, her thick Italian accent as much her own as the Tennessee drawl she adopts for the filmwas jarring and miraculous. Filled with typical indie-film laments (Q: “Why did you end the film where you did?” A: “Because we ran out of money”) the Q&A was less than enlightening but did no disservice to its subject.
The after-party, however, crammed into the lobby disco at the Tribeca Grand Hotel, was a trial, overstuffed with indie boys with Buffalo Springfield haircuts and understaffed behind the bar. I left early, wondering how anyone could blithely schmooze after the grim trawl through LeRoy’s childhood Inferno. Perhaps such lack of affect is all that remains of “underground” culture, whatever it might have meant once upon a time.