This may be one of the most repulsive movies I’ve ever seen. Its protagonist is a sociopathic narcissist who sees women as playthings, who takes advantage of his power, privilege, and money to — literally — bail himself out when he is unable to tell the difference between ambitious young women who tell him to his face that they’re sleeping with him because they’re turned on by his standing, professional sex workers paid to put on a show of pretending to like him, and uninterested female passersby screaming bloody hell for him to stop assaulting them.
And yet Welcome to New York is an important movie, too. It lays bare — literally — the farce that equality and justice become in the face of power, privilege, and money, and in a way that even if you’re already aware of the unfairness — and how can you not be? — it still feels like a call to arms. Writer (with Christ Zois) and director Abel Ferrara offers only the barest of disclaimers that this isn’t in fact the true story of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the director of the International Monetary Fund and onetime future leader of France, just before and after he was accused of sexually assaulting a hotel maid in Manhattan in 2011. Yeah, no one can know what really happened in private — not only in that hotel room but between Strauss-Kahn and his wife, and so on. But we know. We know because we see it over and over again.
It so bald here, so shameless, and so enraging. This is not a pleasant movie in any way at all, and praise can only be extended in the widest artistic sense: The daring on Ferrara’s part to not sugarcoat the repugnant reality of the behavior of men who do what they like to whomever they like because no one will stop them. The daring on the part of Gérard Depardieu (Life of Pi, CQ) as IMF head “Devereaux,” willing to be so utterly disgusting onscreen, wheezing and grunting through the least sexy orgies you’ve ever seen in a film, then using his lumbering nudity first as a weapon — the assault on the maid is a horrific scene (as is a flashback to an earlier attempted rape) — and later as a humiliation of the man. (In the odd out-of-character interview with Depardieu that opens the film, the actor confesses to “hating” the real man his character is a just barely disguised portrait of. He must really hate DSK to put aside vanity like he does here.)
In some of the early scenes, Ferrara is a little too enamored of lingering on naked women: the softcore-porn vibe is lascivious in a way that undermines the point he is making about women as playthings for men. (Or maybe he thinks it’s okay that some women are playthings of men? Ugh.) But he makes up for that with the delicious sequence that begins once Devereaux is arrested. His prosecution may — spoiler alert! unless you’re up on reality — not amount to anything, but at least we get to see this man who has always been so full of his untouchable freedom being treated like the common criminal that he is by no-bullshit, not-impressed NYPD cops and New York corrections officers. (Apparently many of them are not actors but real cops playing themselves; ditto the prostitutes.)
As one of Devereaux’s lawyers tells his wife, Simone (Jacqueline Bisset: Domino, Dangerous Beauty), none of his prosecution will be about reality: instead, “it’s a play.” It’s all messaging and marketing played out in public. And even though she had earlier told her assistant “I should just let him sit in jail,” she doesn’t. And so another thread of unfairness enters into the story: she needs him to play out her own ambitions — she wants him to run for president of France — so she stands by him and helps fund his defense and the $60,000-a-month Manhattan townhouse where he’ll serve out his conditional bail. If only women didn’t stand by these jerks — if only women had their own paths to power — some of them might get the comeuppance they deserve…
Maybe we can have only the momentary justice of seeing a man like Devereaux frogmarched by cops, strip-searched, and fingerprinted. Or, if it’s all a play, maybe it’s time the audience stood up and started throwing rotten fruit at the players. And I don’t mean at the movies.