If Go Go Tales (2007) and 4:44: Last Day on Earth (2011) suggested that Abel Ferrara may be entering a late master period, then Welcome to New York (2014) confirms it. It’s a bold fictional take on the story of former IMF director Dominique’s Strauss-Kahn’s arrest for the sexual assault of a hotel chambermaid in the titular city in 2011. Eschewing the carnival of excess of The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), Ferrara has created a discomforting vision that unfolds in three precise acts; it’s a Nietzschean digi-horror, an exorcism of national demons and a grim procession of humility. In Devereaux, brilliantly played by veteran Gérard Depardieu, the director gives us a monstrously skewed King Lear for the 21st century.
After a tantalisingly self-reflexive prologue (where Depardieu explains why he took the role), we are thrown into the seedy reality of Devereaux’s world. He’s in a New York hotel room loaded with champagne and prostitutes. When one tryst ends, reinforcements arrive, his life being an endless cycle of such encounters. Ferrara’s still camera and intentionally drab lighting allow us to witness the ugly bacchanal in all its horror. The girls are paid to perform the roles of the willing lovers, but he prods and slaps them with a morose degree of pornographic anti-sensuality. Devereaux’s insatiability feels like a form of intrusion, an assertion of power rather than sexual passion. The repetition which dictates his life has a de-eroticised sense of procedure; these are acts for their own sake, grasping for fulfilment that will never come.
The assault on the petrified chambermaid itself – shown in chilling exactitude – is striking in its tonal similarity to the earlier encounters. Devereaux’s lack of humanity is manifested in his sexual acts. Even his caresses seem like forms of attack and, when they finally become that, he can’t differentiate between rape and consensual sex. Indeed, his protestations of innocence centre only on the specificity of the act rather than the lack of consent. Sex, rape – all the same to a sociopath. Welcome to New York’s second act follows Devereaux’s arrest. It becomes a humiliating procedural in which he is spoken to like a criminal, handcuffed and excruciatingly strip-searched. It’s the beast exposed; a moment of national catharsis for France in which their great hope-turned-disgrace is paraded for the baying jackals.
Even in these scenes, we understand Devereaux’s power, but this time it’s through the starkness of his forced passivity rather than his actions. The American justice system becomes the second monster and one beast falls to the mercy of another. What then unfolds is truly astonishing; the film closes in on itself, becoming a fatalistic, treatise on evil, culpability and performance, centring around conversations between an unrepentant Devereaux and his wife (Jacqueline Bisset). With Devereaux speaking in halting English, these conversations carry a sense of theatrical artifice that harks back to the prologue. Politics, sex, justice; it’s all a performance. We are left ravaged, exhausted and hung out to dry. Ferrara’s Welcome to New York is a savage work that’s easily one of the best films of the year.