It’s not every film that starts with its own behind-the-scenes featurette, but then, Abel Ferrara is not every filmmaker. “Welcome to New York,” out on Blu-ray this week, opens with an interview with star Gerard Depardieu explaining why he chose to portray a character based on notorious French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
But then we find out in the closing credits that the journalists in the scene are actually played by actors, further blurring the line between fiction and real life. And, if you follow movie news at all, you know that “Welcome to New York” was the flashpoint of a huge feud between Ferrara and distributor IFC when 18 minutes of the film was trimmed against Ferrara’s wishes. He issued a cease-and-desist letter referring to the “destruction of my film,” and said “Some people wear hoods and carry automatic weapons, others sit behind their desks, but the attack and attempted suppression of the rights of the individual are the same. I will defend the right of free speech till the end and I ask all who believe as I do to not support the showing of this film, on their networks, in their theaters, or wherever.”
So it’s not hugely surprising that the Blu-ray release of “Welcome to New York” doesn’t contain a director’s commentary. In fact, there’s no bonus features at all other than the trailer. But it’s hard to know what Ferrara was so upset about, because if this is the softened, defanged version of the “Bad Lieutenant” director’s film, I can’t imagine what Ferrara’s original cut was like.
This is a brutal, scathing indictment against unchecked privilege and power, and Ferrara’s naked disgust for his protagonist vibrates through every frame of the film. Ferrara finds the ideal partner in Depardieu’s brilliantly raw performance, and the result is a film that, if not meant to be enjoyed, certainly packs a wallop.
You may remember the case: Strauss-Kahn, a French economist and managing director of the International Monetary Fund, was arrested and charged with raping a hotel maid in New York in 2011. The case was later dismissed for lack of evidence, although a French journalist came forward with a similar story.
In the film, Depardieu is Devereaux, a smooth French politician who we see nimbly navigating the corridors of power, knowing the right backs to slap and palms to grease. After a high-level meeting, Devereaux retires to his hotel suite, where he transforms into a rutting animal, ordering prostitutes two at a time. Depardieu, with his giant naked belly hanging before him, looks like an aging, insatiable bull, smearing hookers with champagne and ice cream as if all his appetites merge into one.
Of his character’s guilt, Ferrara has no doubt, and the film flashes back to the beginning of the assault on the maid. We see the powerful man brought low, fingerprinted and strip-searched by police, his arrogant bellows of “Don’t you know who I am?” falling on deaf ears. (The law enforcement in the film have the matter-of-factness of non-actors, which contributes to the disconnect between them and the regal Devereaux).
In steps Devereaux’s wife (a fearsome Jacqueline Bisset), who gets her husband placed under house arrest in an apartment that seems like a cage for him, but for which most Manhattanites would give their right arm for. As she works the levers of power to get the case thrown out, she confronts her philandering husband in a series of lacerating and seemingly improvised conversations. He is unrepentant. He is not like ordinary men, he insists, and shouldn’t have to play by their rules.
Devereaux, in the end, is as excessive and unapologetic as his cinematic biographer. Even though Ferrara detests the man, he is fascinated by him, and it’s that tension that makes “Welcome to New York” such an arresting film. Even diluted Ferrara can jangle the nerves.