In May 2011, a 32-year-old maid at the Sofitel New York Hotel brought charges against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a key member of France’s Socialist Party and managing director of the International Monetary Fund, alleging that he had sexually assaulted her in his hotel room. His subsequent arrest became headline news around the world; in the wake of his criminal trial, other women came forward with allegations of sexual assault, and Strauss-Kahn fell rapidly from political power. Abel Ferrara’s Welcome to New York is plainly based on this scandal; Ferrara cast several of the New York City cops who dealt with Strauss-Kahn as fictionalized versions of themselves, and even shot scenes in the fancy New York townhome where the Frenchman served out his house arrest.
Yet the movie reveals very little about Strauss-Kahn’s life or career. For the first hour Ferrara focuses almost exclusively on the debauchery and subsequent arrest of Devereaux, the Strauss-Kahn character; the remainder of the film shows him arguing with his wife while under house arrest, and when they discuss his political career, they do so in only the broadest terms. As French critic Marie-Pierre Duhamel wrote last year, after Welcome to New York premiered at the Cannes film festival, Devereaux’s wife (Jacqueline Bisset) is reduced to a domineering harpy, and Devereaux (Gérard Depardieu) looks less like “a charismatic and brilliant political leader” than like “a half-wit French province businessman on a vacation in the States.” Ferrara is interested in these people only insofar as they reflect his lifelong obsession with addiction and moral fallibility.
The Bronx-born director has been pounding away at these themes for over three decades, since he graduated from underground filmmaking and hard-core porn to make his first proper feature, The Driller Killer (1979). The cult success of King of New York (1990) and Bad Lieutenant (1992) brought him closer to the American mainstream and allowed him to make such relatively big-budget films as Body Snatchers (1993) and The Funeral (1996). But he never abandoned his trademarks—the scuzzy characters, the frenzied performances, the blunt worldview equating wealth with sin—nor did he kick his addictions to drugs or alcohol, which destroyed more than a few of his working relationships. By the end of that decade Ferrara had returned to the margins of U.S. film culture, where he’s remained ever since. (His critical reputation endures in Europe, though, and he’s continued to direct films thanks to the support of French and Italian production companies.) In fact Welcome to New York is his first narrative film to get a Chicago run since New Rose Hotel (1998) played here about 15 years ago.
Welcome to New York confirms that, no matter what’s happening in the world, Ferrara will continue to mix high art with low life and to stir controversy at every opportunity. In recent months he’s issued numerous attacks against IFC Films, U.S. distributor of Welcome to New York, for releasing a cut that’s 17 minutes shorter than the European version. He’s told interviewers that instead of paying to see the film in a theater, Americans should download his cut from the Internet. When asked about Strauss-Kahn’s attempts to sue him for libel, Ferrara’s comments have been along the lines of what he said at Cannes last year: “Do I know him? No. Do I know me? Yes. Have I been where this guy’s been? Yes.”
When Ferrara says “where this guy’s been,” he’s referring to Strauss-Kahn’s alleged sexual debauchery, which the filmmaker considers a compulsion comparable to alcohol or drug addiction. The original cut of Welcome to New York wallows in Devereaux’s ugliness for its first half hour, as he parties in his hotel suite with several prostitutes and two unidentified male friends. Devereaux laughs boorishly, slurs his words, and grunts like an animal at times. A good deal of this material has been excised for the American release, much to the film’s detriment. In the European cut the scenes depicting Devereaux’s arrest and time in prison covers almost exactly as much time as the sex party, and this symmetry advances the idea that Devereaux is a prisoner in his own skin—first he’s a slave to physical sensation, then he’s a body being frisked, undressed, and inspected by the police. The hedonism of the first hour is inverted in the remainder of the film, when Devereaux wrestles his soul.
This deliberate structure demonstrates Ferrara’s artfulness, as does the lush imagery. Ferrara and cinematographer Ken Kelsch, whose collaboration with the director dates back to The Driller Killer, achieve remarkable effects with minimal lighting. Often they cast heavy shadows around the human figures but create swaths of golden light behind them, the lighting scheme a visual metaphor for spiritual decay amid luxury. Most of the movie takes place indoors, with the camera a couple yards away from the characters—not close enough for one to sympathize with Devereaux, but close enough for one to feel the constraints of his addiction. The hushed sound design further heightens the sense of entrapment, creating a funereal mood. (Ferrara claims to have been off drugs and alcohol for several years now, and the film reflects the ruefulness of someone who realizes he’s wasted much of his life.)
Given this mood, I was jolted when Devereaux and his wife started yelling at each other in that expensive townhome. In their first lengthy argument (there are several), she confronts him with his transgressions, which they both know will cost him his political career. At first he claims to be falsely accused, then eventually he blames his sickness. The largely improvised dialogue is embarrassingly direct, reducing the characters to their basest needs, and both Depardieu and Bisset push themselves to the point of hideousness to convey the characters’ pain. Such moments occur in nearly all of Ferrara’s films, and for many viewers they’re a deal breaker. But one is never eloquent or subtle during a nervous breakdown, and the embarrassment Ferrara engenders during these scenes approximates how it really feels to acknowledge losing control of oneself. All the money and power in the world can’t ease the pain of confronting your own worst nature. In this sense, moral reckoning is similar to addiction or to the law—we’re all equal before it. v