“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.” So begins Scott Foundas‘s review in Variety, and we’ll come back to it in a moment.
First, though, many had hoped and a few expected that the Cannes Film Festival would find a spot in one of its lineups for Welcome to New York. In a series interviews following the announcement of the official selection last month, artistic director Thierry Fremaux diplomatically suggested that, having seen an early cut, he was looking forward to a “second,” and by implication, improved version. “They’re preparing something for Cannes in any case… perhaps in the market… we’ll see.”
Indeed. “They” would be the film’s producers and distributor, Wild Bunch, who quickly followed up on the Cannes snub with an announcement of their own. On Saturday, May 17, a few days into the festival, they’ll stage a gala premiere with Ferrara and his star, Gérard Depardieu, in Cannes and, bypassing a theatrical run altogether, will spend around a million dollars launching a VOD-only release.
As Screen Daily‘s Melanie Goodfellow reports, this is no small deal. Welcome to New York “is one of the most anticipated films of the year in France.” The release strategy “challenges the territory’s media chronology law that demands a four-month window between cinema and VoD release (and 36 months between theatrical and SVoD).” And “some commentators said it sounded the death knell for the country’s media chronology legislation, which is one of the cornerstones of its envied film finance and distribution system.” Says Wild Bunch co-chief Vincent Maraval: “We have the biggest cinema theater in the world, it’s called the internet.” Goodfellow outlines further challenges to the industry that she suggests will profoundly impact the country’s renowned cinephilia.
Maraval, in the meantime, has been making “claims that the French political and media ‘elite’ had done their best to prevent the film… being made,” reports Rory Mulholland for the Telegraph. What’s more, “Maraval said that he was warned by Dan Franck, a friend of Mr. Strauss-Kahn and of his heiress wife Anne Sinclair,” portrayed in Welcome by Jacqueline Bisset, that: “You should know one thing. Anne Sinclair will spend her entire fortune on destroying your life.”
To back up, one of the biggest stories of 2011 broke on May 14 when New York police pulled Strauss-Kahn from his Paris-bound plane at JFK. According to Nafissatou Diallo, a Guinean maid at the Sofitel Hotel in Manhattan, DSK had forced himself on her earlier that day.
And back to the film. “It takes a full 30 minutes,” writes Scott Foundas, “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… Still to come: buckets of champagne and ice cream used in the most imaginative of ways.” And “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…. 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 the Hollywood Reporter, Jordan Mintzer finds that Welcome “initially toes the line between performance piece and soft-core porn, before transforming into an auto-biopic where actor and character meld into the same massive body.” The film “ultimately creates an intriguing cinematic three-way between Ferrara, Strauss-Kahn and Depardieu, with the latter ranting and nodding to the camera, as if Welcome to New York were really about him after all.”
Updates, 5/18: “The hedonism isn’t accompanied by soundtrack selections,” notes Ben Kenigsberg at RogerEbert.com. “Ferrara insists we hear Devereaux’s grunting, slapping, and animal cries. Even in daylight, this vampiric character has sex on the brain.” After the arrest, “the film becomes a refreshingly blunt and efficient procedural, as police from various jurisdictions counter Devereaux’s arrogance with their own…. This is terrific, high-wire filmmaking, even if it gets everyone involved kicked out of France.”
“Just a few days ago, critics across the festival were hailing Timothy Spall’s efforts as porcine gruntmeister J.M.W. Turner, who likes to grope his devoted maid and has one scene having sex with her, while clothed, against a dresser,” recalls the Telegraph‘s Tim Robey. “Well, if the animal honesty of that portrayal took us aback, it’s got nothing on Gérard Depardieu…. Ferrara’s endgame here, it seems, is to cast Devereaux in the mould of one of his self-immolating anti-heroes, like Christopher Walken in King of New York or Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant. A self-confessed sex addict, he’s sliding into an oblivion of his own making… It’s bad enough that the film has such minimal interest in his victim—after two scenes doing the film’s best acting, Afesi is out of the picture. But as portraiture, Welcome to New York flops too, despite Dépardieu’s considerable efforts.”
“I watched the whole thing with my jaw on the floor,” writes the Guardian‘s Xan Brooks. “Depardieu plays the IMF boss as an outright sociopath, without empathy or self-knowledge; unable to distinguish between consensual sex and rape. Devereaux cannot see the difference and doesn’t care much either way…. But what a mighty performance the actor gives us here; it’s the best he’s been in years. His Devereaux at once venal and bemused, monstrous and vulnerable, not least during the extended strip search inside the US prison. Ferrara’s camera has him literally exposed, like an old bull being weighed and examined ahead of the slaughter…. Here is a work of ragged glory; dirty and galvanic; the rot-gut antidote to the refined official line-up. And the competition’s loss is now the general public’s gain.”
For Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn, “Welcome to New York is laughable and grotesque to the extreme, sometimes threatening to crumble under the weight of its monstrous protagonist, but those same factors give it an unnerving immediacy.”
Updates, 5/19: First up today, Reuters is reporting that DSK is suing the film’s makers, even though it’s “billed as a piece of fiction and comes with a legal disclaimer.” And Ferrera says: “I’m not on trial. I’m an artist, I have freedom of speech. I’m from America I’m from the country of the free, land of the free and home of the brave.”
“Ferrara’s well-explored Catholicism makes its way in, as Devereaux claims he will ‘kiss God’s ass forever,’ deciding to create this world as a hell and face punishment in the next,” writes Peter Labuza at the Film Stage. “Twice, he turns and stares right at the camera, as if daring us to judge him when he shows such indifference to the events at hand. Opening with a rock cover of ‘The Star Spangled Banner,’ Welcome to New York is a pulsating reflection of capitalism gone amok that prefers solemnity to ludicrous and indulgent depictions. If The Wolf of Wall Street was drunk, Ferrara is asking us to sober up.”
“Ferrara never justifies DSK’s behavior,” notes Jon Frosch, writing for the Atlantic. “Indeed, the man we see in the movie is an unrepentant sexual aggressor and would-be rapist. If anything, though, the filmmaker is tougher on DSK’s ex-wife Anne Sinclair, an accomplished journalist who stood by her husband during his legal woes before divorcing him once the dust settled. Sharply played by Jacqueline Bisset, ‘Simone,’ as she is called in the film, is a status-obsessed woman more upset over her dashed dreams of first ladyhood than her husband’s misconduct and their crumbling marriage. Most troubling of all is Ferrara’s decision to have Simone constantly talk about money, and his insistence on her attachment to Israel (when we first see her, she’s being toasted at a dinner given by a pro-Israel group). Given Sinclair’s background—she is Jewish, and her grandfather, renowned French art dealer Paul Rosenberg, fled the Nazis in 1940—it’s a particularly nasty touch, and reeks of latent anti-Semitism and sexism.”
“Ferrara’s film is brusquely executed and fueled by Depardieu’s visceral characterization, but dissipates from its initial ugly but compulsive frenzy to become something of a mundane ordeal,” finds Matt Mueller at Thompson on Hollywood.
“Its release is certainly a resounding, if local, gesture that not only is Cannes not necessarily essential for one of the industry’s biggest players but of course for one of its most irrepressible artists, as well,” writes Daniel Kasman. Depardieu, “whose bulk approaches epic proportions and when shown nude resembles a late Lucien Freud painting, owns every frame of the film, radically transforming it away from the specifics of the sex life, New York incarceration, and volatile marriage of his subject. He is simply too big, his gravitational pull is too much; he pulls in the true story and Ferrara’s invention and they orbit around his bulk while he makes his way through orgy and jail and infamy with a remarkable heavyset normalcy.”
Also in the Notebook, Marie-Pierre Duhamel calls out “the usual post-modern gang’s support of Ferrara, praising (unknowingly?) the most Hollywoodian traits of his talent while showing off their ignorance of European realities (and languages).” Also coming in for criticism are the “sloppy editing” and Ferrera’s decision to let Depardieu essentially run rampant. “All the above doubts, as so often in film criticism, can be turned inside out to prove how subversive and inventive Ferrara may be. What will be more difficult to turn inside out, though, is the Mantis syndrome for the wife’s character.”
Update, 5/23: Catherine Shoard talks with Ferrara for the Guardian.
Update, 5/28: “Welcome to New York is stupendous, and it leaves me nearly speechless,” writes Steve Shaviro. The film “conveys, less what actually happened to DSK, than Depardieu-as-Devereaux’s baffled failure to comprehend why any of this should have happened to him, of all people—which perhaps makes the film more farce than tragedy, and none the less devastating for that.”
Update, 6/10: In Cannes, Daniel Kasman took part in a roundtable discussion with Ferrara, “who was generous in time, spirit and patience with his surrounding journalists.”
Update, 3/29: James Kang has been furiously updating his excellent entry on Welcome to New York at Critics Round Up.