Welcome to New York is a grotesque character study of the French head of a world bank – not to mention Presidential hopeful – who stands accused of raping a maid in a New York hotel. Director Abel Ferrara’s film is certainly bold. In fact, you wonder how he got away with it: the filmmakers may have changed the name of their dubious protagonist but nobody with even a passing interest in the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case could mistake the likeness.
The film’s chain of events rarely diverges from the lurid details that emerged in DSK’s court case: the post-shower encounter with a Guinean hotel maid, the forgotten phone, the dramatic aeroplane arrest, the denied bail, etcetera, etcetera.
Strauss-Kahn later admitted “inappropriate” behaviour with the maid but rape charges were dropped, while a civil case was settled out of court. In Ferrara’s imagined version of events, though, there is no doubt about what happened. Barely pausing for breath following a day and night of sex with various combinations of prostitutes, Devereaux (Gérard Depardieu) sees the maid as just the latest in a production line of vessels to satisfy his sex addiction. He’s rich and powerful: women are just fruit for him to snatch as he sees fit. There is no pang of remorse as the raped woman runs crying from his hotel suite, just a shrug. He seems genuinely puzzled when he’s arrested.
Director Abel Ferrara (Bad Lieutenant) is a master of capturing squalor, whether it’s the seediness of Devereaux’s animalistic sex or the institutional filth of the penal system. The camera shies away from nothing, lingering impassively on both taut, young female flesh and Depardieu’s heaving, bloated form. The porny sex scenes are both graphic and dull: there’s no pleasure, just an all-too fleeting release.
For the majority of the film, Devereaux’s job and his wider motivations are rarely alluded to: it’s a straight-up portrait of excessive consumption – both his and, implicitly, that of the western elite. The final segment, though, becomes an almost wistful, fatalistic rumination on society. Ferrara even offers Devereaux a glimmer of mitigation, aligning his moral collapse with the breakdown of his faith that socialism could one day cure the world’s ills.
Depardieu’s very presence adds an intriguing subtext, given his recent defection from France, over his tax affairs, to become a Russian citizen. A bizarre opening scene seems to take the form of an interview with the actor himself, while the pretty young female journalist in the front row is the same person who Devereaux attempts to rape later in the film. The disgust that leaks from Depardieu’s every pore – and believe me, you see every pore – goes beyond contempt for his character: it feels like a two-fingered salute to what he sees as a corrupt ruling class, especially in his native France. “I am an actor… I am an anarchist,” he growls.
Welcome to New York is far from perfect – the long running time and rambling, barely-scripted narrative make it hard work, and its propensity to always show and never tell becomes frustrating; the little insight we’re given into Devereaux feels insufficient. It is, though, a visceral, memorable performance by an actor at the very top of his game, and worth seeing for that alone.
First published in City A.M.