I’m not the world’s biggest Abel Ferrara fan, but even I must admit that the 64-year-old director of Bad Lieutenant, King of New York, and Ms. 45 — he of the extended stretches of cataclysmic addiction and self-destruction and career implosion — seems like the ideal person to take on the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case. Strauss-Kahn (or DSK as he’s more commonly known) was the former IMF head and budding leftist political savior busted for allegedly raping a maid in a New York hotel in 2011. Though the charges were later dropped, the case and its fallout uncovered a world of almost unimaginable debauchery and scuzziness, of international high-level sex rings and sex parties and, as one later accusation disturbingly (but memorably) put it, “aggravated pimping.” This is not the kind of material for a stately biopic or a political drama. This is nasty, strange business — perfect for Ferrara, whose work often hovers between art and exploitation, between angst and sleaze.
The man knows self-destructiveness and decadence firsthand. He understands how thin the line between the proper and the depraved can be for someone caught in the throes of a world of indulgent, entitled hedonism. We see in Welcome to New York how Mr. Devereaux (the film’s barely veiled version of Strauss-Kahn, played by that rotund, decaying Gallic battleship Gérard Depardieu) can walk through a hotel making small talk with a pretty employee one minute, then drift right into his hotel room and the arms of a bunch of hookers the next. We see how, meeting his daughter’s boyfriend for the first time, he shrugs off the younger man’s admiration and instead asks how their “fucking” is. Ferrara also understands the loneliness of this world. After a night of partying with DSK, various prostitutes and pimps walk off into the night, hand in hand. The man himself stays in his hotel room — like a lonely, beached, priapic whale.
So, the film’s first half is truly wonderful. The incident with the maid comes the morning after a series of indulgences, and even though the poor woman is clearly there just to clean the rooms, Devereaux is so gone into his world of lustful impulse that he treats her, matter-of-factly, as just another sex worker. There’s no dark, tormented misunderstanding here; he grabs her the way he might grab the morning paper, and the director knows exactly how to capture the casual monstrosity of the moment. A similar casualness dominates the moments of Devereaux’s arrest; the cops are so coolly professional that, suddenly, he’s the piece of meat. There’s a spellbinding and very naturalistic tension to these scenes. (Ferrara has made his share of cop dramas and has probably had his share of run-ins with the authorities, too.)
After that, however, the film falters somewhat. Which is odd because these later scenes also feature what might be the best performance in the film — Jacqueline Bisset playing Devereaux’s wrathful, disappointed wife, Simone, herself the heir to a large fortune and whose ambitions for him are perhaps even greater than his own. Simone has to be the good, supportive wife in public while stewing in anger and regret behind closed doors. She has to deal not just with her own disappointment but also her husband’s unapologetic sense of entitlement. Bisset has rarely been better.
For all the beauty of its early scenes, Welcome to New York feels like a curiously hesitant work. After his arrest, Devereaux is reflective and mournful and spiteful. He wanders around his rented New York mansion mulling “the hallowed light” of his youthful idealism — the belief that he and other like-minded activists and thinkers could cure injustice and hunger, and turn poverty into “a distant memory whose existence would be difficult to imagine.” He says he understood, once he entered the world of international politics and economics, that these things would never change — that “the enormity of the world’s pathos” was infinite. This, Ferrara suggests, is a man who has given up on the world. His indulgence, his self-destructiveness, is how he copes with the realization that all his good intentions and ideological correctness can’t put a dent into the world’s dense fabric of social injustice and cruelty. Ferrara’s penchant for spelling things out doesn’t always serve him well, and these later scenes where Devereaux reflects on his shattered idealism make for clunky philosophy, and even clunkier cinema.
Of course, it could be argued that Ferrara is making a film about himself as much as he is making a film about DSK. Does the director feel the same indifference? And is he aware that such indifference is that horrid world’s biggest, most powerful weapon? Does Devereaux understand that, or is he too gone into his reveries of self-loathing to notice? I’m not sure the film answers those questions. To its credit, I’m not sure it has to.
A word on the cut of Welcome to New York being released here. (The film is in theaters and VOD right now.) It’s a bit shorter and features some structural changes from Ferrara’s original cut. I suspect his cut may work better. Of course, the director is fighting back in his characteristically over-the-top way, calling people names and doing things like calling for the IFC Center to be burned down. These are antics that I’m sure endear him to his die-hard fans but probably don’t do him any favors in the court of public opinion. (You can read a bit more about the mess here.) Frankly, there’s enough great stuff in Welcome to New York to seek out either cut. And Ferrara’s next film, Pasolini, which premiered at the New York Film Festival last year and will hopefully also come out this year, is one of the best things he’s ever made. Welcome to your career renaissance, Mr. Ferrara. Try not to shit on it before it even starts.