Here's why it matters that author "JT LeRoy" was recently unmasked as a fictional construct created by writer Laura Albert: Because when LeRoy's purportedly autobiographical books Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things strain credulity, LeRoy can no longer fall back on "This really happened." LeRoy's work explores the seamy underbelly of America from the perspective of a young boy whose encounters with prostitutes, psychologists, preachers, and parents are all streaked with abuse. He's either the unluckiest kid who ever lived, or he's full of shit. If they made a movie of his life, nobody would believe it.
And yet it doesn't necessarily matter that Asia Argento's movie version of The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things is based on a lie, because the art-brat director matches LeRoy's picaresque grotesquerie with her own flair for making audiences uncomfortable. From the horrifying images of animated birds ripping apart doll bodies to the flatly repellent shot of cold Spaghetti Rings on a Zoo Pals plate, Argento finds ways to make LeRoy's vision her own. She even casts herself as the mother of the abused boy—played by Jimmy Bennett at age 7, and by twins Cole and Dylan Sprouse at age 11—and dons her best Courtney Love costume as she demonstrates how easy it is to manipulate and mistreat the young.
Granted, Argento's film would probably collapse under the weight of its own preposterousness even if LeRoy hadn't just been outed as a fake. Argento has an uncanny—and likely first-hand—feel for what it's like to be an abandoned child, surviving on Kraft singles and improper attention. But like LeRoy, she can't resist exaggeration. In the movie, the overkill takes the form of needlessly odd camera angles, stunt-casting cameos by the likes of Winona Ryder and Marilyn Manson, and a then-this-awful-thing-happened structure that lacks even the flashes of warmth in the original text.
Still, The Heart Is Deceitful has a daring that's hard to dismiss, even when it only amounts to Argento shamelessly getting off on human rot. The film's rare moments of truth show up in the way Argento amplifies the crinkly sound of hospital paper underneath a boy who's having his torn anus examined by emergency-room doctors. She innately senses the ripples of domestic dissonance and makes a movie about the texture of degradation.