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Simon Read [Celluloid 07.02.14] drama

Abel Ferrara's latest film Welcome to New York stars Gérard Depardieu as Mr. Devereaux, a businessman so steeped in wealth and power that his life appears to be a hedonistic blur of sex, alcohol and incredibly expensive hotel suites. On the morning he is scheduled to leave New York for Paris, where he is to be monitored by French authorities based on rumours surrounding his private life, he sexually assaults a hotel maid and is arrested. In following the subsequent trial, house arrest and marital breakdown which leads Devereaux to question, albeit briefly, the incredible moral vacuum he inhabits, the film bases itself loosely on events surrounding the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case from 2011. While it's a pretty mixed bag, it is worth watching for fans of the director's work.

Ferrara has had a really strange filmmaking career, and he's a director who holds a lot of fascination for me. Starting with a series of low-budget skin flicks (at least in one of which he starred) he made a splash in the late '70s with his first, controversial feature, The Driller Killer, which was banned in the UK on the strength of its poster alone. Following the success of his exceptional exploitation revenge film Ms. 45, he made a series of flashy genre movies including Fear City and King of New York. In the early '90s Ferrara made his most successful and enduring work, the astonishingly grim and uncompromising Bad Lieutenant. The director provocateur later went to Hollywood and took on a multi-million dollar remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (simply titled Body Snatchers), a confused mess which quickly sent him back to his low-budget roots. In 1995 he made The Addiction, a severely underrated vampire film focusing on his twin obsessions: the loss of faith, and the lure of addiction. Throughout his early career Ferrara worked extensively with writer Nicholas St. John, whose intelligent scripts frequently posed challenging moral questions, and complemented the director's approach of utilising a workmanlike, realist style, while including occasional visual flourishes, frequent religious imagery, grubby nudity, intense colour palettes and creatively sourced musical choices. Their last project together was in 1996, on The Funeral, a respectable mafia thriller, after which Ferrara began collaborating with Christ Zois, and slid into making patchy and less successful experimental features like The Blackout and New Rose Hotel.

Of late Ferrara's work has been pretty weak. Despite the admirably creative premise and a solid performance from Willem Dafoe, his last film, the apocalyptic drama 4:44 (review), was unfavourably reviewed by most (although I actually enjoyed it), and many have written the director off as a relic of the past. Welcome to New York was a late addition to the festival line-up this year, so I ended up paying to go to the premiere, and while I wasn't exactly disappointed with what I saw, this may have been due to extremely low expectations...

The film introduces Depardieu's character, Devereaux, as he plans to return to France, where his wife, Simone (Jacqueline Bisset), is grooming him for a presidential candidacy. He's grilled by French authorities while sitting in his luxurious office, and told that he is to be subject to rigorous observation during his visit. Devereaux checks into the Carlton on the evening before his flight, where he is met by a gang of sleazy friends and the prostitutes they've hired for the evening. After a night of drinking and sex, he wakes to find the hotel maid, a shy black woman, attempting to clean his room. He approaches her, naked and with the glint of madness in his eyes. The camera then cuts to a shot of her weeping in the corridor. Later, as Devereaux boards a plane for Paris, he is unceremoniously arrested by port officials and handed over to the NYPD. From here we follow the character as he is subject to the indignities of jail time, bail hearings and house arrest on the lead up to his eventual trial.

Welcome to New York is over two hours long, and its running time is divided roughly into three parts. We observe Devereaux's life in New York before his arrest, his sleazy antics with prostitutes and occasional lunches with friends and family. Then, following his arrest, the film concentrates on his reaction to the procedural aspects of the situation, before settling on long, conversational encounters between Devereaux and his wife as he awaits trial while living under house arrest.

For much of the first section Ferrara shoots uninterrupted scenes of the protagonist's sexual activities, and we are privy to not one, but three sex scenes in the first twenty minutes of the film, all between Depardieu and various high-class call girls. These are filmed in a somewhat documentary style, remaining impartial to the action rather than attempting to make virtues of the character's crassness and vulgarity. Nevertheless, the lingering shots of breasts and bottoms, smeared with champagne and ice-cream, do come across as unnecessary and gratuitous, and we wonder why Ferrara is using a sledgehammer where a needle would work wonders. The film pulls no punches, though, in regard to its unlovable subject. Devereaux is portrayed as a deeply selfish, even childish man, hell-bent on the pursuit of sensory pleasure and with total disregard for the consequences. At a lunch with his daughter and her new boyfriend, he warms to the young man only after forcing him to admit that his girl is good in bed...

On his arrest and once in police custody, Devereaux appears indignant and confused that he should be treated as a criminal. We are unsure if this is out of a misplaced sense of privilege, or if he is genuinely in denial about the severity of his crime, although we are lead to believe it is the latter. Whether or not it is a deliberate choice by Depardieu - we don't really know if the protagonist is churlishly deluded or simply an asshole - this has the effect of keeping us at arm’s length from really understanding his unpleasant character. Regardless, we certainly have no sympathy for him. The jail scenes do, however, contain arguably the best moments in the film. A long walk through the prison provides a sense of depth and authenticity which is seriously lacking in other scenes, and I admire Ferrara's decision to linger over these moments. Depardieu shrinks noticeably when placed in a holding cell with a group of heavy-set black hoods, and given his sheer size, this is a remarkable piece of acting. He asks them what time it is, and they completely ignore him. Although visibly out of his depth, at no point does the character break down or take the time to reflect on his situation. Even when strip searched by prison guards and told that he will, "not last two minutes in this place", he seems unrepentant and focussed on getting back to his old life. Unfortunately we never see the character adjust to life in jail; he is quickly granted bail and spends the rest of the film under house arrest in an expensive apartment which he shares with his frosty wife, Simone.

It is in the third act of the film that we get the opportunity to learn a little more about Devereaux. Scenes between Depardieu and Bisset, in which they discuss their failing marriage and the collapse of their political plans, provide some insight into the mind of the central character. As a man who has been provided for for so long that he has forgotten what reality is, he is simply acting out accordingly. During a session with a psychiatrist, he sheepishly admits, "I'm beginning to think some of this might be my fault." These scenes come way too late in the film, however, and I couldn't help thinking that some kind of explanation for his behaviour in the beginning would have provided a sense of meaning to the early scenes of debauchery.

Bisset as Simone gives a very strong performance. During a scene in which she carefully inspects the apartment where she and her husband will be staying, Ferrara takes his time in letting her walk alone through every single room, considering every single surface, before eventually lying down on the huge bed in a state of emotional and physical exhaustion. She loathes her husband, naturally, and she knows he's guilty too. Having stayed with him for years for the sake of convenience and as a means to an end, she now realises that the destruction of his reputation leaves them with nothing left to offer one another. The scenes between the two characters are well played, but become repetitive and, much like the rest of the film, are simply hammering home a point which we understand before they even start talking.

Perhaps the most curious element of the film is Depardieu himself. His performance seems to be designed not to give anything away, and it's difficult to tell whether he is deliberately underplaying the role in order to remain ambiguous - which would be a huge mistake in terms of creating a satisfying dramatic pay off - or if he has just a become a lazy actor. I suspect it's a mixture of the two. He has terrific presence (his weird face and hefty bulk make sure of that) but doesn't really invest any energy in making the character come alive, instead wandering aimlessly through each situation like a lost child.

Making up in craft for what it seems to lack in soul and conviction, the film looks very good indeed, and Ferrara's style is evident throughout, with long uninterrupted takes, reasonably creative camera work, and a sense of a well made and functional film. It's a shame that the story itself feels so baggy and stitched together, with certain parts working so much better than others. What could have been a skewering character study or even a caustic satire instead presents itself as an ambiguous odyssey with some darkly stylish elements. Devereaux's final confession, which takes the form of a narrative voiceover, details his loss of faith in terms of his idealism. Having never found God, he once had a belief in the world as a better place, but lost this faith as he grew to see the world for what it really is. Reality it seems, led him on his path of self-destruction. Sadly, this rather weak point comes way too late in the narrative for it make any kind of difference; we already dislike Devereaux too much, and no last minute bout of self-pitying reflection is going to change that.

Does this mean the film is unsuccessful? It probably depends on the viewer. The protagonist is inexplicably despicable and remains unpunished and unrepentant, like a reverse Bad Lieutenant without the drugs, but this doesn't automatically make the film a failure. It is well shot, lit and acted for the most part, but at over two hours the narrative is over-stretched and it loses pace after the character's arrest. The script (by Ferrara and Zois) is fine for the most part, but descends into clichés as when Simone lets slip that, "the opposite of love is not hate, it's ambivalence," which just smacks of lazy writing. Depardieu delivers a curiously empty performance, which is a shame as he seems well suited for the part. The opening scene is a mock interview with the actor playing himself, during which he states that he doesn't choose films, they choose him. It's a nice touch, but it doesn't ring true when you consider how absent Depardieu seems during the actual movie. The man himself was scheduled to appear at the premiere for a Q&A session, but cancelled at the last minute. The next day, by chance, I read in a newspaper that he had instead spent the afternoon drinking heavily in a bar on the Isle of Skye of all places. Make of that what you will.

I'm certainly not ready to write off Abel Ferrara. I enjoy his early work and I'm excited to see his next project, a biopic of his filmmaking idol, Pasolini (with Defoe in the lead role). I know that part of me warmed to Welcome to New York because it proves at least that he remains capable of delivering a competently made movie, and although that really doesn't feel like a good enough reason to recommend it, it is reason enough to keep following his work.

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