There are few directors as ideally suited to telling the sordid story of former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn as cinema’s 64-year-old enfant terrible Abel Ferrara. The creator of unrepentantly scuzzy yet sharply incisive films like Bad Lieutenant and King of New York, his work has always skirted the margins of American cinema culture, even after he graduated from early forays into porn to grindhouse masterpieces like Ms. 45 and on to the aforementioned movies featuring well-known faces like Christopher Walken and Harvey Keitel. His latest release, Welcome to New York, was inspired by the 2011 case in which Strauss-Kahn was accused of rape by a New York hotel maid, charges that were later dropped but not before casting unwelcome light on the more dubious pleasure-seeking practices of the rich and over-privileged in a shadow world of global sex rings, plentiful narcotics and a general air of dead-eyed hedonism. Not exactly the best material for a typical Oscar-baity biopic but comfortable territory for Ferrara who, lacking interest in Oscars, has been trawling the sleaziest corners of the human psyche for decades now. Also relevant is Ferrara’s tendency to connect the physical and spiritual debasement depicted in his work to a lifelong preoccupation with the relationship between power, wealth and moral corruption. Strauss-Kahn, as it turns out, is the perfect subject with whom to explore that relationship.
If Ferrara was the perfect choice to direct this material, French actor/hedonist Gerard Depardieu was the perfect choice to star in it. Once an unlikely romantic lead, Depardieu’s embrace of all things decadent has left him looking somewhat worse for the wear but no less capable of grade-A histrionics. You believe that he, like recovered addict Ferrara, may have some personal experience with the emptiness that follows a night of frenzied, desperate partying. Or else he’s really good at pretending he does. Depardieu plays French banker/politician Devereaux, a thinly veiled Strauss-Kahn stand-in, as he grunts and gropes his way through the film’s three distinct acts. The first sees him land in New York and launch headlong into a couple nights of partying with a coterie of pimps and prostitutes in a fancy hotel suite, punctuated only by a meeting with his daughter and her new boyfriend whom he immediately quizzes about the quality of their sex life. After all the partying though, it’s just him, alone in his hotel room, soul-sick and directionless, a monster who isn’t quite sure how he got to become one.
But a monster he is. Ferrara doesn’t equivocate about Devereaux’s guilt. The incident with the maid is depicted onscreen and while it isn’t particularly graphic, it is chilling in its matter-of-factness. Other people, especially women, are pieces of meat to those of Devereaux’s ilk, objects to be used and discarded. He grabs the maid like he is entitled to her, an approach cleverly inverted in the second act which focuses, almost documentary-like in a series of mostly fixed medium shots, on police procedure. NYPD detectives detain Devereaux at the airport, process him at the police station, charge him and imprison him. Nothing overtly dramatic occurs but the emotional and thematic underpinnings imbue these scenes with an unexpected tension. Devereaux is suddenly the dehumanized one, a number for the dispassionate officers to jot down in a long list of others. He’s one of many depraved individuals they encounter every day and they treat him accordingly, with a mixture of contempt and impatience.
Also relevant is Ferrara’s tendency to connect the physical and spiritual debasement depicted in his work to a lifelong preoccupation with the relationship between power, wealth and moral corruption.
It’s the disorienting experience of that reversal of power dynamics that jars Devereaux out of his decadent reverie and gives him a glimpse of the man he’s become. This takes us into the third act which consists of Devereaux and his angry, deeply disappointed wife Simone (silver screen legend Jacqueline Bisset, excellent here) stalking around the downtown Manhattan apartment in which he’s been placed under house arrest, circling each other like caged predators. The ultimate question in these final stretches of the film is not whether Devereaux will be judged guilty or not. Everyone knows the charges against Strauss-Kahn were dismissed. The question here is whether he will come away with anything resembling an epiphany of self-realization. Ferrara, a big fan of the confessional monologue, has Depardieu agonize his way through several of these. A few are a tad on-the-nose but the actor pulls it off, drawing the depressing picture of a former idealist numbed and ruined by the venal worlds of international politics and global economics. The trick is to inject enough pathos to indicate the man Devereaux could have been (and perhaps once was) while refusing to shy away from the man he’s become, thus avoiding depicting him as a semi-sympathetic tragic figure. Ferrara and Depardieu manage to pull this delicate balancing act off, leaving us recoiling at not just the man but the broken system that created him.