In France and Cannes they do these things in style. On Saturday night, screen royalty came to the Cote d’Azur to bless a hot-ticket, hot-topic essay in screen “reality”. Welcome to New York is a truth-based drama, already controversial (and in France already stepping carefully into the public domain with a video-on-demand initial offering), inspired by the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal.
Gérard Depardieu – French stardom doesn’t get more royal – stepped on stage to give blessing and introduction to what the grapevine and blogosphere is already calling “the DSK movie”.
All charges were dropped against Strauss-Kahn in 2011, after a hotel maid accused him of sexually assaulting her. He had denied violence but admitted “inappropriate” behaviour. The civil suit was later settled out of court.
As modern biopics go, Welcome to New York goes like an express train. At least for the first 20 minutes. Directed and co-written by Abel Ferrara, whose bad-boy American thrillers have included Driller Killer and Bad Lieutenant, the pace is so headlong in early scenes that the invited Cannes audience expected derailment.
Is that really Depardieu, baring his all, in two successive orgy scenes in New York? In one, ice cream is smeared all over two willing nymphets; in the next Depardieu’s character goes all the way with two call girls after ogling their Sapphic foreplay. The DSK-inspired chambermaid scene, set the next morning, seems almost a pendant: a few minutes of touchy-feely grappling in the hotel room, brief but assaultive enough for a lawsuit, after the morning shower
Depardieu plays a businessman called Devereux. Since this character is the chief of a famous “international financial institution”, and has been campaigning for the Socialist nomination in an upcoming presidential election, and is shortly, in the film, arrested and taken off a plane for the alleged hotel assault ... he cannot be a million miles from the former minister, economics professor and leader of the IMF.
We don’t expect and don’t get, from Ferrara and Depardieu, much about international finance. We do get a short prologue in which the star, playing himself, tells journalists he “hates politicians”. But he obviously has a soft spot for this one. He plays Devereux/Strauss-Kahn as a giant-bellied Genghis Khan of the bedroom and boardroom.
After the sex antics we watch the character stoically endure arrest and trial. The film becomes, in these scenes, a well-observed police and courtroom procedural. Then it is back home, or into house arrest, with Jacqueline Bisset as Mme Devereux sharing the New York luxury pad and the sharply scripted quarrels that occupy the remaining footage.
The film cranks up its quality so much, in middle and concluding parts, that we can forgive, if not forget, the sex-and-schlock start-up.
Depardieu himself, as an actor, is larger than life and getting larger. It becomes scarily endearing – even while we fight the feeling – to watch this hero launch his outsize appetites, and in nude scenes outsize abdomen, at every passing innocent.
There’s a compulsion in this character though, we feel, and some kind of insane innocence. He doesn’t molest only his carnal partners. He verbally molests even his daughter and boyfriend. “How is ze fucking?” Depardieu keeps asking, after barely a glass of rouge at a restaurant reunion.
The scenes with Bisset bring us what we have been waiting for: some grown-up debate and articulacy. She frets, glowers, rages and inveighs, as any wife would. He lobs the defences and protests any husband might. “It’s a crime that I want to feel young?”; and “You knew what I was when you married me.”
There are a few last-ditch invocations of the bigger world of business and politics in which the DSK scandal played out – “My first god was idealism,” mutters the protagonist here, recalling his childhood. And there is the climactic, partially redeeming honesty of a Lear-like cry from Depardieu, reluctant to offer the demanded contrition and atonement: “No one wants to be saved,” he says. “That’s the irony . . .”
It is a long way from an X-certificate sex-party movie to an existentialist drama of conscience, set in a putative world of public affairs. But Welcome to New York – give it the credit it is due – just about makes the journey.