Rich and strange: Welcome to New York **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 4, 2015)

In my 2009 review of Tom Tykwer’s conspiracy thriller, The International, I observed:

The timing of the film’s release is interesting, in light of the current banking crisis and plethora of financial scandals. From what I understand, certain elements of the story are based on the B.C.C.I. scandal. I predict this will become the new trend in screen villains-the R. Allen Stanfords and Bernie Madoffs seem heaven-sent to replace Middle-Eastern terrorists as the newest Heavies du Jour in action thrillers. You can take that to the bank.

While it is not a “action thriller” per se, Abel Ferrara’s new film, Welcome to New York, is likewise “ripped from the headlines”, involves an evil banker, and agog with backroom deals and secret handshakes. More specifically, the film is based on the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal. In case you need a refresher, he was the fine fellow who was accused and indicted for an alleged sexual assault and attempted rape of a maid employed by the ritzy NYC hotel he was staying at during a 2011 business trip.

The case was dismissed after the maid’s credibility was brought into question (Strauss-Kahn later admitted in a TV interview that a liaison did occur, but denied any criminal wrongdoing). I’m sure that the fact that Strauss-Kahn happened to be head of the International Monetary Fund at the time (and a front-runner in France’s 2012 presidential race) had absolutely nothing to do with him traipsing out from the sordid affair smelling like a rose.

There’s no question that Bronx native Ferrara loves New York; nearly all of the two dozen or so films to his credit have been set in the Big Apple. And like many New Yorkers, Ferrara loves a parade, which is likely why he opens his new film with a veritable parade of high-priced call girls, rotating in and out of one particular NYC hotel room in cadres of three or four at a time. Their insatiable client is one Mr. Devereaux (Gerard Depardieu), a powerful international financier. Sweaty, wheezing and boorish, he’s nobody’s dream date, but the sad fact remains…money talks, bullshit walks (bringing to mind my favorite line from Swingers: “What do you drive?”).

Sometime after the revelries subside, a maid enters (thinking the room unoccupied), and encounters our apparently still frisky Mr. Devereaux, fresh from the shower. Ferrara cleverly (and thankfully) pulls away before we can bear witness to what happens next, but then devotes the remainder of the film dealing with the fallout.

This film left me feeling  ambivalent; I think this is because the director seems ambivalent toward his subject. Not that a film inspired by a true story (especially one that so closely mirrors the actual events) is required to be didactic, or a morality play, but Ferrara has taken a hyper-realistic approach that can be stultifying at times.

Still, it was a pleasant surprise to see Jacqueline Bisset back on the big screen (as Devereaux’s long-suffering wife). She seems to have made a graceful transition into a full-blooded performer; while perennially easy on the eye, I always found her characterizations wooden-but she puts more “character” into her work nowadays.

It is interesting watching the hulking Depardieu wrestle with the motivations (and what passes as the “conscience”) of his Dostoevskian character. It doesn’t make this creep any more sympathetic, but it is a fearless late-career performance, as naked (literally and emotionally) as Brando was playing a similarly loathsome study in Last Tango in Paris (not to go so far as to say that  Ferrara is quite in the same league as Bertolucci, mind you).

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