“WELCOME TO NEW YORK” is Abel Ferrara’s riveting, engaging, horrifying retelling of the debauchery and lusts that drove Dominique Strauss-Khan, at the time Managing Director of the IMF and plausible contender for the French Presidency, to the (alleged) assault and rape of a maid, Nafissatou Diallo in the Sofitel New York Hotel three years ago. Strauss-Khan was arrested, as he was about to leave for Paris and confined to house arrest until his case was heard. Though he was subsequently found innocent (hence my reference to “alleged”), her credibility having come under attack, he eventually reached a private settlement with her.
The whole affair was a seedy, repugnant one that, as these things tend to do, peeled back layers of Khan’s serial womanizing – a mix, according to the movie, of prostitution, persuasion and rape.
Gérard Depardieu, in his best recent role by far, is Deveraux, the DSK figure. He’s a grunting, amoral, selfish man; a vast bulk of swollen, doughy flesh, inflated by a sense of entitlement and power.
We meet him as he’s arriving in Manhattan where he (this ex-leader of the French Socialist Party) checks in to his opulent, palacial suite. Awaiting his arrival is a luxurious buffet of anonymous, elegantly disrobed women and two equally anonymous men (their handlers?) along with assorted liquors, sweets and drugs, all there to sate his post journey concupiscence. (The hotel rooms I’ve stayed in were never this well stocked.) To Deveraux’s seemingly inexhaustible desire, this is a mere amuse bouche and is soon replaced by the main meal of two stately, stunning, willing ‘party girls’, too professional to ever let on that this feast of corpulence is anything but repulsive.
Women and sex are just a trader’s commodities, available at his behest, and available to him as offerings, sweeteners to the way business is done. And for those women who have the temerity to resist the cash and charms of Deveraux’ power, nothing less than rape will suffice. It is in the morning after, as he’s showering, readying for a day of business and lunch with his daughter that the Diallo character, thinking the room empty, crosses his path. In the same way that a smoker needs a cigarette to start the day, Deveraux needs sex to start his. And who better but a maid? Another anonymous and available pussy. And who cares whether she’s willing or no. As he says to her, thrusting his corpulent nakedness at her, “Don’t you know who I am?”
Does she indeed! For here we see more than Deveraux assaulting a maid. Within the narrative of the Deveraux story, perhaps lies the larger story of Western monied might having its way with the poor of the global South.
The reality that New York director Ferrara confronts…assails us with is one that he builds through a layering of images and set-piece vignettes. At the beginning, as the credits introduce the movie, to the background audio of Paul Hipp’s lovely “America the Beautiful”, we are introduced to Deveraux after a camera sweep of gold bullion, money and Wall Street. It’s as if Deveraux is the engorged, corrupted living representative of the never satisfied greed of Wall Street. Later in the story, he is attacked by Simone (Jacqueline Bisset) his wife, of not really understanding what a man is, because really, Ferrara suggests, he’s less than a man: simply an aggregation of animal lusts and hungers.
In Ferrara’s layering, the golden, softly lit scenes of luxury and sex are abruptly shattered once Deveraux is arrested. The style of the movie then turns into the harsh reportage of a police procedural. We see the world of pomp and circumstance run into the world of the NYPD. Deveraux is jailed (in a holding cell with four fit menacing black men who circle him like beats of prey sniffing out this appetizing wounded animal), identified in a line-up, finger-printed and, in a final act of humiliation, stripped and made to squat naked in front of the officers. Having been removed from all the trappings of power, this is just a pathetic fat man. The policemen are snarling and unimpressed by his position. They order him around, just as they would do any other low-life criminal. It’s just another face of power on display.
His rescue comes in the form of the one phone call – to Simone. Jacqueline Bisset as Simone, matches Depardieu every step of the way. She really does make us believe that she is absolutely un-intimidated by Deveraux’s pushy, self-centered bullying. For if he has the power of position, she has the power of money. And she makes no bones in reminding him about it. If to the police he’s simply a rape suspect who they fear may skip town, to her, he’s a massive disappointment, a failure to her own ambitions of becoming First Lady.
Bisset’s acting is an Oscar-worthy tour de force. This is Deveraux’ wife as Lady Macbeth. She is as cunning, conniving and amoral as he is. And she’s very self-aware… of her own potential to be seduced by both his neediness and his nearness to the Presidency. She is both attracted and repulsed by him and in one screaming confrontation with him in the privacy of their grand $60,000/month house arrest prison (the same annual salary of one of his arresting cops), she physically fights him off even as she builds a force field of defense against him. This is one woman who is more powerful than him; the one person in the movie over whom he cannot force himself on. He needs her more than she needs him.
This nobody hotel maid and poorly paid government lawyers are no match for the money she can throw at the case. And as expected, she is successful. Ferrara cleverly uses one piece of actual news footage to show the government prosecutor announcing the government’s retreat from the case. “Tell me the truth,” Deveraux demands of her when he learns of his ‘innocence’, “How much money did you pay to get me off?” Her reply to him is stark in its truth. “This kind of truth,” she tells him, “is not something you ever tell. It is too easy for lovers to turn enemies and then where will their knowledge of the truth lead you?”
Where indeed? This brush with the law, this near incarceration for rape, this destruction of a political ambition leaves Deveraux unchanged. There is no cleansing exorcism in all this. The last scene sees him chatting up a hapless cleaner employed by his wife. As the lights fade, we know only too well the fate that lies in store for her.
And Strauss-Khan’s fate? He’s the Managing Director of a huge and successful hedge fund that last year earned him about £700,000. If you want the wisdom of his personal consultancy, expect to pay about £100,000 an hour. He has also threatened to sue the film’s producers for libel, expecting no doubt “compensation”
We wonder what fate lies in store for them