Abel Ferrara, the rascally perennial New York filmmaker behind seminal tales of urban grime like "Bad Lieutenant" and "The Funeral," has never taken kindly to the idea of compromise. At the same time, the unruly, anarchic sensibility visible in his movies also colors his business dealings, to the point where the legitimacy of his routine complaints with collaborators are difficult to discern.
Such is the case with "Welcome to New York," Ferrara's gleefully vulgar portrait of disgraced French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn, which IFC Films releases in the U.S. on March 27. The movie, which stars Gerard Depardieu in the lead role, premiered at an unofficial screening in Cannes last May at the same time that it became available on VOD platforms in France. But it wasn't until the fall, when Ferrara was promoting his biopic "Pasolini," that he began to speak out against the distributor for its plans to release a cut of the movie without his approval.
At the time, Ferrara took issue with a request from IFC that the director deliver an R-rated version of his movie, which opens with a prolonged orgy sequence featuring Depardieu with a variety of anonymous women. But the distributor was ultimately caught in the crossfire of a different battle. In reality, Ferrara's beef was with sales company Wild Bunch, which guaranteed an R-rated cut in its deal with IFC, an offer that came equipped with a higher price tag and the promise of syndication on Showtime. (IFC declined to comment.)
With the U.S. release around the corner, Ferrara has reignited controversy by circulating more complaints. In an initial statement, he wrote that "as a filmmaker and a human being, I detest the destruction of my film." He characterized the situation as a First Amendment issue. "I will defend the right of free speech 'til the end," he wrote, "and I ask all who believe as I do not to support the show of this film on their networks, or their theaters, or wherever."
Ferrara's histrionic response, much like his work, tells the story through a distinctly antagonizing filter. According to Wild Bunch's Vincent Maraval, Ferrara's contract stipulated that if his movie lacked an R rating he would lose final cut. "This was a provision he accepted to get the money to finance the film as it was a bigger budget than his previous ones," Maraval told Indiewire. "We sold it to IFC at a price reflecting that budget and guaranteed them the same possibility as they were paying a price that was important and needed such a rating for a TV sale to recoup their investment."
As a contrast, Maraval singled out Ferrara's previous drama, the considerably more lo-fi "4:44 Last Day on Earth," which was also released by IFC and did not include a clause about the director forgoing final cut. (Notably, it was the first of his titles to reach U.S. theaters in nearly half a decade after various other deals for his other recent work fell through.) In the case of "Welcome to New York," Maraval said when he approached Ferrara about delivering an R-rated cut, "he response was somewhere between 'fuck them' and 'mmmrrrmmr." The sales agent added after preparing a shorter cut that mainly slimmed down the orgy scene, the director refused. "This version has existed for eight months, has been released all over the world by distributors to whom we gave the choice between two versions, and all unanimously preferred the shorter version not only for commercial reasons but because they found it much better," Maraval said.
In a followup conversation with Indiewire, Ferrara confirmed that he declined to watch the R-rated version but stood his ground. "I have had contractual final cut for 30 years and wouldn't make a film without it," he said. "Wild Bunch and IFC have produced and distributed many of the films I have made during this period and it has never been an issue. That is the reason I chose to be in business with them." He claimed that he had no issue with the idea of a censored version made with his approval. "Making certain cuts for direct home broadcast showings is something I am in agreement with and have no problem with," he said, "but not when that is used to change the political or moral content of my work. Censoring my work in theaters or Maraval arbitrarily and unlawfully changing my work is legally and morally unacceptable."
Maraval shrugged off Ferrara's dramatic complaints. "He is just using the media to make his own legend of the doomed artist against the system like he always has," he said. "The thing is that Abel became a pathetic character who lost his mind in his drug years and needs to make noise and provocation to exist. We spent the last 10 years and five movies together to help him but he is his own enemy. His talent is intact but he takes pleasure in destroying his own work."
Talk to others involved in the process of attempting to release Ferrara's movies over the past decade, and they tend to sound the same basic notes — the guy makes terrifically liberating movies but instinctively bites the hand that feeds him.
The irony is that since he sobered up and left New York to spend much of his time in Europe, Ferrara has delivered some of his most thematically audacious and entertaining work. The award-winning 2005 "Mary" found Juliette Binoche in a cryptic riff on Christian ideology. "Go Go Tales," which played in Cannes competition in 2007, transported the bittersweet vibes of a Frank Capra picture to a Chelsea strip club where a hustling Willem Dafoe — in one of his finest performances — struggles to save his failing business over the course of a desperate night. That was initially an IFC release before falling into distribution limbo and surfacing for a short run at New York's Anthology Film Archives years later, where "Mary" also briefly screened. "4:44" was an tender riff on an apocalypse story in which the imminent catastrophe took on the intimacy of its lead character's fragile mindset. It was released without issue.
"Welcome to New York" is a more unseemly form of portraiture, but with its hilariously buffoonish depiction of a hedonistic DSK, often has the elevated absurdity of a razor-sharp editorial cartoon. Yet its later scenes, in which the humiliated sex fiend must confront his fiery wife (a superb Jacqueline Bisset) about his sins, have the focused intensity of a melodrama. Maraval singled out "Welcome to New York" as Ferrara's best since "The Funeral," praising the new film for its "exploration of the modern soul."
In an earlier interview with Indiewire, Ferrara said the story emphasized the self-destructive tendencies of the ruling classes. "How do you become president? You have to have to have a billion dollars," he said. "So DSK was going to become president and then this happens. Next thing you know, he rapes a maid in a hotel. All of a sudden, whoa, it's a big deal." He added that "every film is a political film."
Ferrara may in fact have some reasons for concern about the extent to which he controls his own work, but audiences shouldn't have to worry about tracking it down. At least one New York theater has already offered to screen the director's cut, though the R-rated version contains very few obvious differences and remains, by most estimates, the distinctive provocation he envisioned. Nevertheless, the director told Indiewire that he plans to take legal action against Wild Bunch. But he faces another battle with a bigger foe — DSK himself, who Ferrara claimed to be pursuing a defamation suit against the movie.
In the meantime, however, the director has at least one promising development on the horizon: His Rome-based girlfriend is expected to give birth to the couple's first child this month.