The career-imploding misadventures of former IMF chief (and presumptive French presidential candidate) Dominique Strauss-Kahn get filtered through the uniquely lurid prism of director Abel Ferrara in “Welcome to New York,” a bluntly powerful provocation that begins as a kind of tabloid melodrama and gradually evolves into a fraught study of addiction, narcissism and the lava flow of capitalist privilege. A sure-fire scandal starter in France, where both DSK and Depardieu are polarizing topics of conversation, “Welcome” seems a well-calculated risk for French distrib Wild Bunch, which will release the pic in an innovative VOD-only strategy May 17 following a gala Cannes premiere (independent of any official festival section). Elsewhere, Ferrara’s latest will be more of a niche attraction, but should garner more attention than the helmer’s past several efforts — and do much to remind auds of the visceral talent of Depardieu, whose audacious performance is undeniably the pic’s chief selling point.
Although Ferrara and co-screenwriter Chris Zois (“New Rose Hotel,” “The Blackout”) have changed the characters’ names — more to protect themselves than anyone’s supposed innocence — and tacked on a lengthy pre-film disclaimer, “Welcome to New York” leaves few doubts about what the filmmakers think really happened on the morning of May 14, 2011, when Strauss-Kahn allegedly forced himself sexually on Guinean housekeeper Nafissatou Diallo in Manhattan’s Sofitel Hotel. (While the criminal charges were eventually dismissed due to inconsistencies in Diallo’s testimony, a subsequent civil trial ended in an undisclosed settlement payment.)
It takes a full 30 minutes, though, for “Welcome” to arrive at that inciting incident, during which Ferrara sets the stage by showing Depardieu’s George Devereaux behaving very badly all up and down the Eastern seaboard, from his Washington, D.C., office (rendered here as something of a high-end brothel) to his New York hotel suite, where he arrives to find two unidentified associates (Paul Calderon and Paul Hipp) and a trio of hired women well on their way to a full-blown orgy. Still to come: buckets of champagne and ice cream used in the most imaginative of ways.
Such graphically rendered scenes may turn off as many viewers as they turn on, while leaving still others wishing Ferrara would simply cut to the chase. But as in “The Wolf of Wall Street” (a movie “Welcome” complements in several respects), these early moments are crucial to establishing the compulsive nature of the central character, and his sense of impunity. (DSK’s alleged entree to Diallo — “Do you know who I am?” — now serves as the tagline for Ferrara’s film.) But it’s equally clear from the start that Ferrara views the DSK case as less an isolated incident than a representative one — a link in a long chain of capitalist decay and First World exploitation of the Third. In a typically idiosyncratic but effective touch, the director even opens the film with a montage of Washington-area landmarks and shots of money rolling off the presses of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, all set to actor-singer Hipp’s irony-laced cover of “America the Beautiful.”
Those allegorical impulses are offset by an almost fetishistic attention to procedural details that, at times, threatens to turn “Welcome” into an X-rated episode of “Dragnet” or “Law & Order.” Scene by scene, Ferrara depicts Devereaux’s airport arrest, police interrogation and incarceration, even using some of the real law-enforcement officials from the DSK case to reprise their roles onscreen. For the later scenes in which Devereaux is remanded to house arrest, Ferrara shot in the actual Franklin Street townhouse where DSK served out his time in the company of his then-wife, the French-American journalist and socialite Anne Sinclair (here called Simone and played by Jacqueline Bisset). And at the center of it all is Depardieu, who gives the sort of performance that calls to mind Jean-Luc Godard’s famous observation that every fiction film is also a documentary of its actors.
Ferrara is no stranger to drawing great, uninhibited, end-of-tether performances from his actors, especially Christopher Walken (in “King of New York”) and Harvey Keitel (in “Bad Lieutenant” and “Dangerous Game”), and he does much the same with the embattled French star, who’s been more notable in recent years for his own headline-grabbing airplane antics and bid for Russian citizenship than for anything he’s done onscreen. But Depardieu is remarkable here on several fronts: He seems more present, more committed to the role than any of the several dozen he has played since Claude Chabrol’s “Bellamy” in 2009, and he charges brazenly into whatever breach Ferrara demands of him — especially in several scenes that require the once-strapping, feral actor to expose his now-bloated, porcine body for the camera’s unforgiving scrutiny. When Devereaux is forced to strip nude by prison officers and must agonizingly contort his body to complete the task, it’s the actor and not the character who conjures our sympathies. Elsewhere, though, it is Depardieu the canny, empathic performer who finds a tragic dimension in the heretofore monstrous Devereaux — a man of large, insatiable appetites he is at a loss to control.
Bisset, who replaced Isabelle Adjani during pre-production, more than holds her own against Depardieu, in scenes that have some of the raw-nerve quality of the marital scenes in John Cassavetes movies. Entering the film midway through, Bisset plays Simone/Sinclair with the inner sadness of a woman whose marriage is based on some combination of genuine affection and social strategizing, who has too long stood by idly while her s.o. has sabotaged her plans (for both him and herself), and who can no longer recognize what she ever loved or cared for in this great, sagging hulk of a man. In his last film, the apocalyptic drama “4:44 Last Day on Earth,” Ferrara gave us a couple who grew closer as the world outside crumbled around them; here he inverts the formula, giving us a couple whose private world falls apart while life outside marches on undeterred.
Bisset and Depardieu are so good together, in fact, that it comes as a mild disappointment whenever Ferrara cuts away to flashbacks designed to illustrate Devereaux’s long history of sexual compulsion (including the character’s near-rape of a Tristane Banon-like journalist, played by Ferrara muse Shanyn Leigh). We don’t need to see such indiscretions acted out, because their imprint is visible in every lined crevice of Bisset’s weary face, and every leering glance Depardieu casts toward the couple’s new housemaid. Then again, Ferrara has never been the tidiest of filmmakers, and for all its overindulgences (which push the running time past the two-hour mark), “Welcome” sustains a crude, pungent fascination that can’t easily be shaken.
As in “4:44,” Ferrara and longtime d.p. Ken Kelsch seem invigorated to be shooting once again in New York after a lengthy European hiatus, affecting the gritty verisimilitude (especially in the prison scenes) that has always been part and parcel of Ferrara’s best work. Newcomer Pamela Afesi makes a strong impression in her brief appearance as the violated maid, as does French TV actress Marie Moute in a couple of scenes as Devereaux’s sympathetic daughter.