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The words “sex” and “scandal” have made for rare bedfellows in France, where the private lives of politicians are usually confined to the tabloids, but hardly make the evening news. That all changed in May 2011 when IMF head and presidential hopeful Dominique Strauss-Kahn was arrested in New York for sexually assaulting his hotel chambermaid, Nafissatou Diallo, sparking a court case, civil lawsuit and mega-sized media blitz that would put an end to his career as a public official.
Revisiting L’affaire Strauss-Kahn three years later, and doing it with the wanton decadence of two guys who know their subject awfully well, director Abel Ferrara and star Gerard Depardieu offer up a racy and at times, uproarious portrayal of the incident that initially toes the line between performance piece and soft-core porn, before transforming into an auto-biopic where actor and character meld into the same massive body. It’s a rather fascinating bit of artistic self-indulgence that’s both made by, and about, self-indulgent men, although one that can certainly grow taxing, especially in its latter stages dealing with the domestic fallout resulting from DSK’s many misdeeds.
Welcome to New York, as the film is ironically titled, began causing controversy long before its release, hatching rumors that Anne Sinclair — Strauss-Kahn’s ultra-rich and powerful wife at the time of the affair — was attempting to block production. With financing difficult to find in France, producer and sales agent Wild Bunch eventually landed investors abroad, and has now decided to distribute the film locally on VOD only — a rare strategy for such a high profile project.
Given all the buzz and curiosity, New York should thus see a warm welcome when it rolls out digitally in Gaul and other select territories on May 17th, alongside a special market screening organized in Cannes (from whose Official Selection the film is conspicuously absent). A U.S. release by IFC will likely give Ferrara some of the most (indecent) exposure he’s had Stateside in many years.
Although an opening caveat warns us that the story is “inspired by a court case” yet “entirely fictional,” anyone with a brain and an internet connection will know what it’s about, even if Ferrara and co-writer Christ Zois (New Rose Hotel) have changed their hero’s name to Devereaux (Depardieu) and his spouse’s to Simone (Jacqueline Bisset, Day for Night, Under the Volcano).
After an initial interview with Depardieu (the actor) that promptly breaks down the film’s fourth wall, followed by a montage of famous D.C. monuments set to Paul Hipp’s cover of “America the Beautiful,” we pick up Devereaux at his Washington office, whose sexy, lecherous staff he can’t keep his paws off of. Next he arrives at the Carlton hotel in N.Y. for a one-night layover — “lay” being the key word here, as his suite is already occupied by a band of prostitutes, one with whom Devereaux partakes in savage oral sex that has him grunting and wailing like a rhinoceros having a triple orgasm.
“I’m not a spring chicken,” he warns later on when yet two more hookers arrive for a threesome, and after another round of explicit grinding, one would think the 60-something Frenchie would be all tapped out. But the next morning, as he’s stepping from the shower, Devereaux crosses paths with a maid (Pamela Afesi) and proceeds to engage with her in a manner that — without giving too much away — leaves little room for debate.
Seemingly unfazed by his actions, he then heads for lunch with his daughter, Sophie, (Marie Moute) and her b.f., Josh (JD Taylor), in a hilarious scene revealing to what extent Devereaux’s libido is as outsized as his whopper of a belly. After asking the young couple if “the fucking is good,” he bursts into laughter when Josh orders a bouillabaisse, joking that the dish is “like a sex party with the fishies!”
This man clearly has issues, and Ferrara — who’s never shied away from transgression, especially in his ‘90s classics Bad Lieutenant and The Addiction – seems to be the perfect candidate to capture Devereaux/DSK’s freewheeling and all-encompassing carnal impulses. The same goes for Depardieu, who has his own history of Bacchanalian exploits and public ostracism, and takes to his character like a kid to a candy store.
But once the cops catch up with Devereaux as he boards a plane to Paris, the story grows considerably darker as it follows his arrest, indictment and incarceration, with Ferrara using real NYPD officers and locations (including Rikers Island) to enhance the situation’s reality. “Tough cookie,” many a viewer may say, but in no way are the filmmakers trying to build sympathy for Devereaux. Rather, they’re attempting to show what one of France’s most powerful emperors looks like with no clothes — quite literally, in a lengthy and memorable sequence where he’s humiliatingly strip-searched in jail.
Those familiar with the DSK case, and how it was ultimately resolved out of court, will have few facts to glean from the film’s second half, which focuses on Devereaux’s home detention at the $60,000/month Tribeca mansion paid for by Simone, who comes swooping in with her checkbook to save the day. Offering up numerous scenes where husband and wife verbally spar in their uber-designer abode, these moments lack intensity and are hindered by the decision to have Depardieu and the bilingual Bisset play them in English, whereas the natural language would be French.
Yet the movie’s closing reels offer up another kind of development as Devereaux, still confined to house arrest, begins to increasingly resemble the actor playing him, and vice-versa. It’s a rather exhausting device at this point — especially at a two-hour-plus running time — but one that ultimately creates an intriguing cinematic three-way between Ferrara, Strauss-Kahn and Depardieu, with the latter ranting and nodding to the camera, as if Welcome to New York were really about him after all.
Tech credits are of a higher caliber than some of the director’s recent efforts, with regular DP Ken Kelsch capturing the Manhattan decors with a mix of cool colors (for the arrest) and warm highlights (for the nooky). Outside the songs by Hipp used at the beginning and end, there’s hardly any music beyond the sound of Depardieu’s heavy, belabored breathing, making Devereaux sound less like an average man and more like a nihilistic Darth Vader whose sex drive is forever running at light speed.
Production companies: Wild Bunch, Forbes, Belladonna Productions
Cast: Gerard Depardieu, Jacqueline Bisset, Marie Moute, Pamela Afesi
Director: Abel Ferrara
Screenwriters: Abel Ferrara, Christ Zois
Producer: Adam Folk
Executive producers: Anthony Gudas, Michael Corso
Director of photography: Ken Kelsch
Production designer: Tommaso Ortino
Costume designer: Ciera Wells
Editor: Anthony Redman
Sales agent: Wild Bunch
No rating, 124 minutes
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