On a business trip in New York French managing director and presidential candidate Devereaux (Gérard Depardieu) cavorts with call girls in front of some unnerved business associates. After an orgy involving a few friends and a harem of glamorous hookers, he checks into a hotel for a night of further debauchery with two beautiful Russian prostitutes. Come the morning, a groggy, hungover but still insatiable Devereaux perpetrates a grotesque assault upon a hotel maid. She reports the incident to the police who promptly arrest Devereaux just as he is about to board the plane back to France. A scandal erupts and while his enraged wife, Simone (Jacqueline Bisset) flies to New York to see what can be done, Devereaux languishes in jail, his career in tatters.
In 2011 Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the French economist, politician, member of the Socialist Party and managing director of the International Monetary Fund was arrested in New York for allegedly assaulting a hotel employee. Although charges were subsequently dropped through supposed lack of evidence and a settlement reached with the victim out of court, further allegations of impropriety thwarted Strauss-Kahn's ambition to become the next president of France. Then just as memories of the scandal have begun receding from the international scene, France's most celebrated actor plays a thinly-veiled stand-in for Strauss-Kahn in the latest controversial movie from Abel Ferrara. Opening as the film does with a half-hearted disclaimer, stressing this is inspired by and not strictly recreating events, along with an interview wherein Gérard Depardieu explains his reasons for taking on this role despite his distaste for the real life protagonist, it is perhaps no surprise Strauss-Kahn set out to sue the producers. Oddly, on the grounds of antisemitism of which there is barely a trace in the movie. Although Ferrara accords the victim more dignity and perhaps sympathy than she received in real life, depicting her assault in harrowing yet relatively restrained fashion, his principal interest lies with psychoanalyzing the Strauss-Kahn figure. Interestingly, co-screenwriter Christ Zois, aside from collaborating with Ferrara on The Blackout (1997) and New Rose Hotel (1998), also authored a line of psychiatric self-help books.
Echoing past protagonists from the grindhouse notoriety of The Driller Killer (1979) to art-house controversy of Bad Lieutenant (1992), Devereaux emerges another of Ferrara's tortured souls trapped in an urban hell that is both source, extension and facilitator of his psychotic impulses. In a powerhouse performance, Depardieu plays him as a grunting, heaving brute of a man defined largely by his carnal appetite, prone to paranoia and self-pity yet in more reflective moments a silent despair. He has few redeeming features yet Ferrara musters a significant amount of empathy mining bleak tragi-comedy from scenes where the befuddled Frenchman is herded through the legal system by hard-boiled New York cops and prison guards. It is not quite Monsieur Hulot in Custody but Ferrara leans towards farce with a nod to François Truffaut in the scene where Devereaux laughs uproariously at a key scene in Bed and Board (1970), another film about adultery. "No-one can save anyone because no-one wants to be saved", Devereaux tells his court-appointed psychiatrist towards the finale. Although Ferrara possibly overreaches in theorizing his aberrant behaviour stems from thwarted ideals he does convey a palpable sense of powerlessness and frustration that drive the protagonist towards self-destruction. It is not a film for anyone cynical about sex addiction as a legitimate condition but mounts a persuasive case that wealth and power are far more stifling and joyless than many reason them to be.
Opening with Paul Hipp's mournful rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner Welcome to New York is as much about the flip-side of the city as it is about the man. Though removed from the grimy urban hell-holes of Ferrara's grindhouse classics the director still serves up a sleek, soulless metropolis that enables damaged people to indulge their hedonistic impulses until they destroy themselves. It is a film of stark tonal shifts, opening with a lengthy array of scenes where the drug-addled Devereaux snorts and heaves his way through sex with a succession of glamorous call girls that reveal more of Depardieu than one imagines most people would want to see at this stage in his career, before we segue into the almost docu-drama meets Law & Order segment devoted to the police investigation. By contrast the confrontation between Devereaux and his wife (with Bisset on fine form) come across a trifle theatrical while the film also briefly loses its footing with two abrupt detours. First Devereaux embarks on genuine love affair with a beautiful young black law student then (in an incident again drawn from real events) tries to rape a journalist in yet another harrowing scene. Neither side-plot pay off and Ferrara also loses something by neglecting to explore the sociopolitical angle of the Strauss-Kahn incident. This was a man entrusted with managing the IMF after all. Yet the bleak nature of the message, that we are each trapped in a hell of our own making and would not have it any other way, packs a punch.
1990's King of New York was a return to form, while the searing Bad Lieutenant quickly became the most notorious, and perhaps best, film of Ferrara's career. The nineties proved to be the director's busiest decade, as he dabbled in intense psycho-drama (Dangerous Game, The Blackout), gangster movies (The Funeral), sci-fi (Body Snatchers, New Rose Hotel) and horror (The Addiction). He continued to turn in little-seen but interesting work, such as the urban drug drama 'R Xmas and the religious allegory Mary until his higher profile returned with the likes of Welcome to New York and Pasolini.