The film is inspired by a court case, the public stages of which have been filmed, broadcast, reported and commented on throughout the media worldwide. Nonetheless, the characters and all the sequences depicting their private lives remain entirely fictional.
So reads the caveat in the press notes and trailer for Abel Ferrara‘s “Welcome To New York,” a film inspired by the headlines made by former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who was accused in 2011 of sexually assaulting a hotel worker In New York City. And whether or not the warning is legally obligated or intended to prepare viewers for the depths into which this film plunges, it seems unnecessary. While the broad outline of the Strauss-Kahn case makes up the structure of the movie, co-written by Ferrara and Chris Zois, the film is less about DSK, as he is known in his native France, or even the specifics of the court case. Instead, “Welcome To New York” is an unflinching portrait of a monster, a man so coddled by wealth and protected by power that he conducts his life as if consequences are something that other people have to worry about.
Topping the antics of Jordan Belfort in Martin Scorsese‘s “The Wolf Of Wall Street” and exceeding the graphic heights of Brandon in Steve McQueen‘s “Shame,” the opening thirty minutes of “Welcome To New York” are a relentless display of sexual excess. Beginning in the Washington office of George Devereaux (Gérard Depardieu), where receiving blowjobs are as regular a part of the work day as dictating memos for the women on staff, the narrative then turns to New York City, where the banking titan’s hotel room becomes a scene of pure bacchanalia. Ice cream, champagne and flesh are conjoined in a typically sordid manner. But just before George has a moment to himself, his pals order up two more escorts, and the longest sexual sequence of the movie is devoted to a threeway that observes few limits.
But what comes next finds Ferrara succeeding where Scorsese’s film delivered too little, too late. While ‘Wolf’ has no problem sequencing Belfort’s indulgences to pop songs before finally depicting his fall, ‘New York’ not only quickly establishes George as a ruthless predator, but the last two-thirds of the film portray the world he knows crumbles around him. His decline starts the morning after his threesome, when a hotel maid (Pamela Afesi) walks into his room without knowing he’s there. And when the assault occurs, it’s grotesque and horrifying, with Ferrara focusing the camera unblinkingly on every moment. George has no “cool” aspect. He is not an anti-hero. He’s simply a sexual offender.
It might seem a bit strange how much time Ferrara devotes the middle third of the film to processing George through the legal system. But it’s a fairly brilliant tactic. From a life of comfortable hotel rooms, plush offices and readily available women, George is arrested, placed in various holding cells, put into a line-up, strip searched and fingerprinted, all lensed with palpable authenticity (someone give Ferrara an NYC police procedural on HBO, stat). And try as he might to invoke diplomatic immunity or assert his rights, George is coldly rebuffed, finding himself without the power to which he is accustomed. “I don’t want no bullshit from you. This ain’t fucking France. You ain’t no tough guy here,” a cop tells him. This entire section of the film is only time we see George punished in any way for his crime, but as Ferrara soon points out, justice is an entirely different matter.
The final act of the film shifts gears and sidesteps the particulars of the case. And perhaps even more boldly, the maid—who until this point has had two scenes, the assault and her report to police detectives—exits the movie. Instead, the focus is on George, and the details of his life that have led him to admit to a therapist his view that “no one wants to be saved.” He married into money, with his wife Simone (Jacqueline Bisset) building up ambitious plans for George to run for the President of France, even as she lives with the knowledge of his girlfriends, indiscretions and previous crimes. She’s a different kind of monster than George. His status enables her own ascent up society’s ladder, even as she admits whatever passion was there between them evaporated long ago. “The other side of love is not hate, it’s indifference,” she states. And even when George makes the jaw dropping confession of his actual crime—”I jerked off on her mouth! That’s all I did!”—Simone’s continual complaint is that her grand plans have been shipwrecked. George’s sexual misconduct is almost taken as an inconvenience; he’s like a child sent home from school with a note from the teacher. And really, that’s what George is—a child.
He genuinely believes that his actions are justified. “Is it wrong to feel young?” he callously asks Simone. And indeed, it’s his wife who takes most of the meetings with legal counsel, and in one telling sequence, George looks up from watching François Truffaut‘s “Bed And Board” to ask Simone, “What did the lawyers say?” It’s another example of George never having to worry about fallout from even his most base behaviour, and why should he? Flashbacks—including one harrowing near rape of a young woman—show he’s never really had to answer for his misdeeds, and that others will clean up his mess. Each step of his life has seen him more and more isolated from having to deal directly with the results of his misdeeds.
And yet, we see why that is, thanks to an absolutely blazing turn by Depardieu. He’s fearless as George, and rightfully commands whatever frame he’s in. Depardieu understands that what makes George even more detestable is that he is undeniably charming, and even funny. When he describes bouillabaisse as a “sex party with fish” it’s laugh out loud hilarious and stomach churning all at once. And moreover, Ferrara exploits Depardieu’s potent sexuality—while the actor has a tremendous gut, but the sex scenes are raw, animalistic and real. “We didn’t rehearse those scenes. The girls dug him. They dug him just because he was there. What you see in the film—the relationship between him and those girls—that’s what really happened….Everything in those scenes, the sexuality, the power, his aphrodisiac force…is him,” Ferrara says in the press notes. George doesn’t have an arc per se, but Depardieu finds a variety of character beats in playing someone who is determinedly not going to change. That said, it’s crucial to have a foil for Depardieu, and Bisset is more than up to the task, bringing the titanic character of George down to size in all their scenes together, with particular relish.
Ferrara directs the film with an energy that keeps the movie, which runs slightly over two hours, always engaging, but there are certain elements that don’t quite work. A pre-opening credits sequence with Depardieu as “himself,” explaining why he took the role, attempts to add a meta layer to the drama (emphasized by a couple of fourth wall breaking moments later in the film) is a misfire. And an attempt to make some kind of statement about American economic power (a raggedy version of “America The Beautiful” kicks off the movie, soundtracking shots of stacks of money) never quite goes anywhere either. But these are minor digressions in an otherwise fascinating depiction of another kind of wolf of Wall Street, one whose endless hunger is only matched by his vile soullessness. [B]