In case you missed it, Welcome to New York, one of Abel Ferrara’s two 2014 productions (the other being Pasolini), opens March 27 from US distributor IFC Films on VOD and in select cities though not, apparently, curiously, in New York, where most movies open and where its infamous action is set. According to reports on Flavorwire and elsewhere, the IFC Center canceled its run due to threats of violence from or inspired by Ferrara. (His reply: “Those comments were metaphorical. I am an artist and a Buddhist so firebombing theaters is not on my agenda.”) They’d planned to show the same R-rated version edited by worldwide distributor Wild Bunch and disowned by Ferrara that will be available on VOD. Anthology Film Archives reportedly declined an offer to show the director’s uncut version, which premiered at Cannes and is available on Blu-ray in Europe (and online, where Ferrara encourages you to steal it).
Wild Bunch’s replayed trump card is that Ferrara signed a contract guaranteeing an R-rated version, and since he has refused to provide one (“I don’t make R-rated movies,” he says), Wild Bunch feel they were within their rights to slice as they pleased. The fury of Ferrara’s response—comparing the players from IFC and Wild Bunch to Charlie Hebdo shooter-esque assassins of freedom—has to do with the extremity (17 minutes) and unapproved manner of the edits, which, in his view, suggest that a chambermaid’s account of a hotel rape, shown in flashback during a police interrogation, might be fabricated. While Ferrara, never afraid to self-mythologize and manufacture dust-ups, should always be taken with a grain of salt (remember his Werner Herzog-Bad Lieutenant pseudo-dispute?), he has a case, and a comparison of the two versions shows that Wild Bunch went beyond mere trimming of naughty bits to subtle manipulation of authorial intent and political content, if falling short of Ferrara’s claim that their version “condones rape” (it does not).
The rapist in question here is Devereaux (Gérard Depardieu), a veiled portrait of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the International Monetary Fund in 2011 when he was arrested on sexual assault charges made by the New York hotel’s maid. The film follows him for a brief period before the assault, through his arrest and visit to Rikers Island, in court to win house arrest (where there’s a weird reference to Roman Polanski) and to the luxury townhouse hastily purchased by his wife Simone (Jacqueline Bisset), where the couple engage in tormented arguments and self-ruminations for the film’s final third. The real DSK’s eventual dubious exoneration (based on high-powered legal discrediting of the victim) of the maid assault is not covered, nor the subsequent rape allegations and “aggravated pimping” charge for which he is currently on trial.
Despite what Ferrara would have you believe, neither the R-rated nor uncut version leaves any real doubt of Devereaux’s guilt, or the filmmakers’, actors’ or film itself’s feelings towards its corrupt pig of an antihero. A brief prologue has the actor Depardieu telling a few interviewers that he’s “an anarchist” who “hates” politicians, before the credits kick in to a dreary version of “America the Beautiful” over shots of military helicopters and money being minted, an instance of sub-Michael Moore ironic soundtracking that’s an indicator of the subtlety scarcity to come. The uncut version more thoroughly establishes Devereaux’s beastly sexual addiction and rough objectification of women, as he manhandles prostitutes in his office and forces aggressive oral sex in an extended scene back at the hotel which leads to a prostitute ménage à trois that was also drastically shortened by Wild Bunch (with no great loss of point or effect).
Depardieu is shocking in these scenes, a pockmarked, eggplant-nosed meat mountain barely able to get words out in French or English, only animalistic grunts akin to Timothy Spall’s in Mr. Turner as he paws his arbitrary “partners.” His sense of sexual entitlement is so entrenched, it’s no wonder he feels he can help himself to the maid (Pamela Afesi) and when he’s punished, he has no idea whatever for. The Wild Bunch version (which I watched first) “allows” the unnamed maid a “please, sir, no” before the first her assault, then shows her crying in the hotel’s hallway. An extended assault during her police interrogation that is still not as graphic and unambiguous as the depiction in the uncut version follows later, preparing the viewer for a possible Rashomon-style variety of different perspectives of the event, which is not forthcoming. While Wild Bunch claims they chose their cuts to improve “the flow,” it does seem that the withholding of the damning obscenity and scrambling of the timeline is an effort to titillate with “what-ifs” that the uncut film repudiates. Further softening the portrait of Devereaux, the R-rated version omits a flashback to another harrowing attempted rape, this time with an American interviewer.
The long punishment segment set in the gray, loveless bowels of the New York penal system varies little between versions. The film takes on tones both tragic and comic when Devereaux faces the jaded, no-bullshit wrath of an NYPD wholly unimpressed by his IMF gig, moneyed wife and assumed prestige. Even Devereaux’s gait is privileged — shuffling and distracted — and the Rikers guards aren’t having it (“Hurry up, motherfucker!”), as they make him strip for his King Lear, absolution-of-vanity low point.
After the heady, nauseating bacchanalia of the early scenes and the brightly lit, coldly sober and mean rawness of the prison and court scenes, the film’s final act is a drag, over-banking on the interest of the marital discord Devereaux’s criminal behavior has wrought. It’s hinted at earlier when Simone’s first reaction to her husband’s arrest is a melodramatic, “He’s destroyed everything I’ve worked for!” Depardieu and Bisset have a chemistry of contempt that seems genuine, and it’s possible that those more familiar with “real Simone” Anne Sinclair’s familial history and European television celebrity might relish their fictionalized spats, but the dialogue, however crafted by Ferrara and co-writer Christ Zois, has a badly improvised feel, with Simone complaining about her torpedoed presidential hopes for Devereaux, and Depardieu delivering broken-English, on-the-nose poetry like, “You know I’m a sex addict… I didn’t get a blowjob! I didn’t fuck—I just jerk in her mouth!… That is my sickness!” (Shades of Keitel in Bad Lieutenant here.) That this dialogue appears in the R-rated version is evidence that Wild Bunch weren’t trying to obfuscate Devereaux/DSK’s culpability. Stronger than the spousal shouting is Devereaux’s nihilistic interior monologue as he pads about the house, experiences brief moments of clarity in his rantings or dresses down a psychiatrist (Zois), all late attempts to humanize and walk back the overall vilification of the main character.
Enough of the buildup to the assault on the maid exists in the R-rated version to show Devereaux’s guilt, but Wild Bunch’s shifting and trimming of the full assault, and other scenes, does muddy Ferrara’s intent, and raises questions of their motive. Besides, the act of a distributor’s employees fancying themselves editors (filmmakers) and having their way with a director and his creative team’s art is always a desecration in itself.