Heroin is a fascinating and heartbreaking portrait of an artist who’s sole muse is his ex-wife.
The film begins with the painter working on his latest portrait of his ex-wife. He discusses their personal history—they met when he was 18, lived in New York, and had a child together. However, there came a point where she found him too possessive and they split. Still, she comes to his studio once or twice a year to be photographed and he uses these photos as studies for his painting. In each photo, she dresses not as herself but as a character. The film captures him shooting a new portrait of her, showing the intimacy that still exists between them, but also the distance. He has made paintings of her for 29 years—a total of 2000.
The first notable feature of Heroin is that the film begins and ends in black and white, an interesting choice given that it features the work of the artist so heavily. The only moments filmed in color are when the artist is taking photographs of his ex-wife in his studio. As he states, “colors, shapes have taken the place of that intimacy we had.” The film’s visual choices extend this statement. On the one hand, it suggests his assertion that painting is enough to fill the gap his ex-wife made in his life is not true—he still lives his life largely in black and white, and his paintings of her are not enough to replace her absence. There is a profound sadness in this—he has created so many paintings of her yet it will never be enough. On the other hand, the colored film suggests that there is still some intimacy left between himself and his ex-wife, despite their split. There is hope in this notion that counterbalances the sadness—though she only comes once a year, there is still something between them.
The tension between intimacy and distance is poignant in the scenes in which the artist is photographing his wife. She appears tense at times but there is an unmistakable familiarity between them as when he carefully arranges the wig on her head. His devotion is not just to his art but to her. Perhaps the most striking shot occurs when his ex-wife struggles to remove her scarf, knotted around her neck. His hand hovers near her shoulder, gesturing to help but unable to actually touch her, unsure if that would be acceptable or overly familiar. As he states, “the person I was married to does not exist any more. What we have now is characters…a parallel reality…it’s the only way to keep being in the presence of the other.”
Obsession plays a key role in the artist’s work. As he states, “I know every little detail, every little feature.” The beauty of his art is found in his enduring fascination. His devotion to her is moving and sad—he is the epitome of the tortured artist. He loves studying her face and yet he also sees that “every little wrinkle is…proof time has past without me being there.” The title of film encapsulates this dichotomy. On the one hand, she is his hero, his muse; but she is also his drug. His paintings are a study of adoration addiction—the parts of the film shot in color could be said to encapsulate a euphoric rush of joy before the next period of black and white. Heroin is not only an intimate look at his artistic process but also his internal psyche.