Welcome to New York opens with two prologues, unrelated but textbook-Brechtian: The first is an interview with the film's star, Gérard Depardieu, about acting and politics (he doesn't like either, for reasons that he doesn't really explain); the second is a montage of historical monuments and Washington landmarks, ending with shots of dollar bills emerging from a printing press while "America the Beautiful" plays. What is director Abel Ferrara trying to tell us? That his film is really about how money and political power go hand in hand? That we should keep a sense of distance from the film and not look for true story melodrama or psychological verisimilitude? It's not clear, and it may not even matter.
Ferrara is an anarchic chameleon of a filmmaker. He straddles genres and flaunts a Times Square/drive-in sensibility that improbably collides with his rough sense of streetwise politics. More respected on the international festival circuit than in the United States, he's made cop movies (The Bad Lieutenant), gangster movies (King of New York), science fiction, horror, a Cassavetes-style drama (the little-seen Go-Go Tales), a slasher film (Driller Killer, which has been called the original video nasty), and even a Biblical film. Most of them are as chaotic and raw as they are sincere. Ferrara leaves in the rough edges and loose ends that most directors would throw away.
Which may be why it has taken nearly a year for Welcome to New York to get its American release. After months of Ferrara and American distributor IFC squabbling over cuts IFC made to secure an R rating, the film is finally available at various VOD outlets. IFC may have been leery of an NC-17 rating, but the movie would be a hard sell no matter how it was categorized. Like many of Ferrara's films, it's a mess, but that's not really a criticism. Messiness is part of what makes Ferrara so interesting. He makes slightly out-of-control films about people with out-of-control lives.
Welcome to New York is a fictionalized account of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal of 2011. Strauss-Kahn, the head of the International Monetary Fund and, at the time of his arrest, a prospective candidate for president in France, was accused of sexually assaulting a hotel housekeeper in New York. The charges were eventually dropped for lack of evidence. (In France, some believe that Strauss-Kahn was set up by his political rival, Nicolas Sarkozy.) Ferrara's version stays within close range of the facts in many respects, but only as a broad outline. He's not interested in condemning or defending Strauss-Kahn; the film is an examination of the kind of power he held and how it molded his character, but it's not a morality tale.
In Ferrara's version, the Strauss-Kahn figure, Devereaux — no first name is used, not even by his wife — is a man who runs on impulse. For the first 30 minutes we follow him through a series of orchestrated sexual encounters and orgies. (Warning: Contains scenes of ice cream abuse!) He's on a binge, driven more by compulsion than by lust. Even in a business setting — although it's not entirely clear what kind of business he's in — he fills his office with attractive women who paw him and offer massages to his guests. As played by Depardieu — who hasn't given a performance this strong in years — Devereaux is crude, monstrous and almost childishly short on self-awareness. But Ferrara refrains from judgment, presenting his excesses and his inevitable downfall with an odd detachment.
After pushing the limits of bad behavior in the first half hour, Ferrara — like Devereaux — retreats into a more passive state. Devereaux's manic spell comes to an abrupt end once he's arrested, and the film changes just as suddenly, dwelling on even the minutest details of police procedure. The monster is humbled, overcome by the unresponsive guards, the inspections, even the process of being fingerprinted, all played out at length in deliberate contrast to the film's hyperactive first act.
But this is just the prologue to an even greater change sparked by the arrival of Devereaux's wife, Simone. She's an imperious figure, the real force behind her husband's success. Brilliantly played by Jacqueline Bisset, she's formidable and a bit frightening, and Devereaux seems to shrink from her rage. The film's final scenes are a Bergmanesque study of their disintegrating marriage, with Simone trying to work through the repercussions of her now-subdued husband's barbarousness. At the end Devereaux is defeated and deflated, and even the assault of the housekeeper, presented brutally and then slowly dissolving into insignificance, seems to have been forgotten.
To his credit, Ferrara never expects us to truly feel sympathy for this strange villain, but there's something disturbingly close to tragedy about his defeat. The monster from the film's beginning has disappeared, replaced by a childlike figure who has started to believe — and take comfort in — his own lies.