It’s only been a year since Abel Ferrara dropped Welcome to New York amid feverish controversy, including lawsuits from every single party involved. Over the course of that year, the movie has only become more demanding, more frustrating, more angry, and more petulant at the injustices displayed within these frames. In 2016 America, we have two presidential candidates, each swamped in a lifetime’s worth of controversies, both seen as lying corrupt dodgers of the legal system…and they’re both claiming to be from New York. On one side is a life long New York businessman who creates empires out of houses of cards stacked on top of one another in the hopes that the next one is started before the first one crumbles. He collects lawsuits like Pigpen collects dirt, paying off lawmakers and attorneys in the vain hope that one or two lawsuits will be dropped. On the other side is a recent New York transplant, a former First Lady of the House who had a reputation for saying one thing then doing another. She has investigations dropped without trials, foundations that beg corruption, and has a record of being on Wall Street’s payrolls. She is also married to a man who lied about affairs under oath and was also accused of rape soon after he made it into the White House. Welcome to New York, motherfuckers.
Ferrara’s film isn’t about American politicians, but it might as well be about American society in the new global world we find ourselves in. As Ferrara announces in the title card, Welcome to New York is a fictionalized version of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair where the head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was in New York having an orgy that finished with a hotel maid accusing him of sexually assaulting her on his way out the door. The real life case never went to trial as prosecutors started finding “changes” in the maid’s stories and subsequently dropped the charges because they couldn’t believe the victim. To top it off, Strauss-Kahn had started rumors a month or two before the orgy that he feared his opponents would accuse him of rape to dismantle him from power. What happened in that hotel room is known only to Strauss-Kahn and the victim…and, while we shouldn’t be speculating on it, Abel Ferrara certainly has strong opinions on it.
Gerard Depardieu plays Devereaux, a fictionalized stand-in for Dominique Strauss-Kahn. By the time of filming, Depardieu had grown into a grotesquerie of a man, with an enormous belly the belied his own addictions and vices. Starting in 2011, Depardieu started finding trouble stemming from his alcohol dependency, including driving drunk and assaulting a motorist. In 2012, because of an increasing tax rate on the rich, he changed citizenship to Belgium and then to Russia. Now, he attacks Putin’s critics with ferocity while managing to keep his movie fortune from being fairly taxed under the French government which had been controlled by Socialist President Francois Hollande who was elected in the same campaign year that Strauss-Kahn was forced to abandon his own run for the socialist presidency due to this scandal.
Starting out a review with 500 words of spiderwebby politics and finance seems indulgent, but Ferrara’s Welcome To New York is precisely about that nest of corruption that happens at the upper echelons of our society. The uncut version makes no bones about it: Ferrara believes that Strauss-Kahn actually raped the hotel maid and escaped prosecution because of his privilege and power. The entire first act sets up Devereaux as a fat, sleazy, debaucherous pig who can’t even fuck for more than a minute or two at a time. As head of the IMF, he holds meetings with officials and brings in prostitutes rather than discussing business. He goes to New York where he hires strings of prostitutes to have orgies with blenders of cialis, champagne and ice cream. It all culminates with Devereaux violating the maid.
This is important. The US version, which Ferrara has renounced, cuts the scene when the maid enters the hotel, and only plays the violation in flashback when the maid is being interrogated. The difference here is key. Where Ferrara’s version unabashedly states that Devereaux committed the crime, the US version adds in ambiguity by only seeing the rape through the victim’s flashback, giving credence to the claim of the prosecutors that the maid cannot be trusted and that the truth of Devereaux’s innocence has prevailed. The whole message of the movie – about power and money corrupting the halls of justice – changes drastically with one little change in editing.
After being arrested while trying to board a plane back to France, Devereaux is run through the jailing process. He’s thrown in a jail cell full of pissed off black men who seems to have far less financial means. The officers who process him use their power to prod and humiliate him, putting the inhumanity of our criminal system front and center. Dare we empathize with him because he’s a human being put through the crass process that so demeans everybody who commits a crime? Or, do we feel superior to him because he’s a rich criminal who has been brought down a few pegs and now has to suffer like the 99% would? This dichotomy is cleared up when he is able to make $1m bail and is forced to live under house arrest in a $60k/mth rental. Justice is for those who can afford it.
Devereaux is increasingly separated from his consequences. He has an affair with the daughter of an acquaintance, sexually assaults yet another woman, and still says that he never molested the maid. When the dismissal happens based on the impossibility to prosecute with the evidence provided, Devereaux trumpets that truth has finally won out. Does that sound familiar? Maybe about Hillary’s e-mail scandals? Or, about any number of the police murders where grand juries or prosecutors have decided there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute, subsequently being trumpeted as the innocence of the police? I can’t have been the only one to hear echoes of the grand jury refusing to indict the police officers involved in Eric Garner’s murder. Then, Devereaux has the gall to cap off his triumphant celebration by asking his wife who she paid off, bringing up echoes of Trump paying off the Florida AG in the investigation of Trump University. Welcome to New York, motherfucker.
Ferrara brings his no-bullshit style to the film, especially in the uncut version. He doesn’t use showy cinematic editing techniques, a jumbled timeline, or coyly censored imagery to soften the blow. Devereaux believes he’s a living legend of decadence, and his surroundings are lush and lurid, though, at times, inhospitably claustrophobic. When he’s living the humiliating life of a jailbird, Ferrara surrounds him with the cold dank grey and bright neon lights of serfdom. Though we’re constantly seeing Welcome to New York through Devereaux’s eyes, Ferrara never condones the grotesqueries we witness on screen. Similar to, and maybe more successful than, Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street, Ferrara hammers home the point that we’re not meant to idolize the man on screen. Though she helps Devereaux at every turn, Devereaux’s wife, Simone (Jacqueline Bisset) constantly judges him for his poor decisions and his privilege distortion field. She’s Ferrara’s conscience, deservedly harping (though, miraculously, she’s not presented as a harpy) on the immorality of Devereaux’s actions, a character severely lacking in Wolf of Wall Street.
Similar to Wolf of Wall Street, Welcome to New York isn’t just about one criminal able to game the system. Ferrara is indicting the entire system, especially the New York Justice system, for being biased against the impoverished and set up to let the rich and powerful off the hook at any given time. The black men in Devereaux’s holding cell are there when he gets put in there, and are still there when he finally gets processed. When he finally achieves bail, the final image is of a black man about to face the same judge, the message being that he won’t have the same benefits that Devereaux was afforded. Devereaux spends his time between release and dismissal living a life of luxury in a fancy house with a maid as echoes of the Affluenza kid rang through my head.
The final two minutes, where Devereaux is left alone with another maid, are horrifying and indicting. He doesn’t assault this maid, but we’re left with the feeling that he could at any chance. Instead, we know that he is free with no consequences and is encouraged to repeat his past crimes. It’s scary not just because we see it around us every day, but we actually condone it on a regular basis. Welcome to New York, motherfuckers.
Final Note: If you’re in the United States, don’t settle for the US version. The US version is 15 minutes shorter and has a multitude of editing changes beyond censorship. The Directors Cut runs 124 minutes.