A recent collaboration between a prolific independent American auteur and a giant of modern French cinema has not only helped bury the reputation of one of Europe’s most tragic leading bureaucrats, but could now raise some hackles in the upcoming US presidential election. Mark Fraser looks at a genuinely scabrous work about the abuse of power and its painful consequences.
During its written prologue/disclaimer, Abel Ferrara’s Welcome to New York (2014) makes it clear the film is about erstwhile International Monetary Fund head Dominique Strauss-Kahn, whose highflying career was brought to a grinding halt after he was accused of sexually assaulting – and attempting to rape – a Guinean-born chambermaid in Manhattan’s Sofitel Hotel during May, 2011.
In a lengthy piece of written exposition, the director explains the events depicted in the movie are “inspired by a court case, the public stages of which have been filmed, broadcast, reported and commented on throughout the media world-wide”.
For those not familiar with the Paris-born Strauss-Kahn (who turned 66 last year), he completed a law degree and a PhD in economics during the 1970s before working as an academic and university financial heavyweight for almost 10 years, eventually entering French politics in 1986 when he was elected to the country’s National Assembly.
After he lost his seat in France’s 1993 parliamentary poll, he founded a corporate law consultancy and, later, returned to academia. He became the IMF chief during 2007.
By 2011 it was expected the patrician Strauss-Kahn would run as the Socialist Party’s presidential candidate in the country’s 2012 election. This plan, however, was knocked on the head after the Sofitel incident (which, he maintains, was consensual).
And while he got off the New York charges after the accuser – Nafissatou Diallo – was found to be an unreliable witness, an out of court settlement allegedly worth a not-to-shabby US$6 million was agreed to in the Bronx Supreme Court during December 2012.
Since then Strauss-Kahn has found himself in further turmoil after being charged by the French authorities with aiding and abetting (read pimping) seven prostitutes. This was thrown out of court earlier this year.
Although Welcome to New York paints a staggeringly unflattering picture of Strauss-Kahn via Gerard Depardieu’s stunning portrayal of brutish World Bank head Deveraux, it’s arguable that beneath the film’s austere surface is a somewhat veiled look at one of the world’s best known power couples – Bill and Hillary Clinton.
From the outset it must be made clear this is not the first time Bill’s name has been associated with the movie. Back in December 2011, Deadline.com reported French producer Vincent Maraval (who helped make Ferrara’s apocalyptic 4.44 Last Day on Earth the same year) as saying the script “could” also include “elements inspired by” the lives of other politicians like former US commander-in-chief Clinton and Italy’s ex-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Fortunately for the two men a cinematic bullet was dodged when the director and his co-writer Christ Zois eventually focused their attention on the not-so-closet degenerate Frenchman, who reportedly has a penchant for high class prostitutes and enjoys “rougher than average sex”. Their profit, however, was Strauss-Kahn’s loss as Welcome to New York is a highly inflammatory account of the erstwhile IMF head’s sordid crash and burn.
Nevertheless, a few intriguing elements are at work in the film which strongly suggest both Bill and Hillary are partly in its sights.
First of all there’s the fact Depardieu’s utter contempt for powerful men is not restricted to the Strauss-Kahns of life.
This is revealed in the movie’s odd opening scene, when the actor is fielding questions at a “press conference” regarding his decision to accept the role of Deveraux.
According to the beefy thespian, he took the part “simply because I don’t like him.”
“You have to feel something and I don’t feel him,” Depardieu explains.
“And I don’t like the people who make politics.
“I don’t trust politics. I don’t like the people who make policy. I don’t believe them. I hate them.”
If anything, this makes the intent of Depardieu’s savage character assassination quite clear from the outset – not only is he going after Strauss-Kahn, but also every other influential political power broker with a rampant dick who uses his position to elicit sexual favours. Given his well-known reputation as a womaniser, 42nd US President “Slick Willy” Clinton certainly fits this bill.
Secondly, there’s Deveraux’s long suffering wife Simone (Jacqueline Bisset) who – like Hillary (if one believes what one reads in unofficial biographies) – pragmatically turns a blind eye to her philandering husband’s indiscretions as she pursues her own ambitious agenda.
Simone’s tolerance, however, comes at a price – as seen towards the end of the film when she bears her frustrated soul to the talented man she has tried to love. By the time it reaches this point, Welcome to New York has moved into John Cassavetes territory, revealing the inner workings of a long marriage where dysfunction and co-dependence have become an accepted part of the bigger picture.
Thirdly, there’s the fact Deveraux – like Strauss-Kahn before May, 2011 (and Mr Clinton pre-1992) – is looking to make a tilt for his country’s presidency. Furthermore, it is hinted (albeit later refuted) that Simone also has her eyes on France’s top job. Given these circumstances, it’s difficult not to make a comparison between the couple on the screen and the politically ambitious Clintons, particularly as Hillary is now one of the Democratic Party’s front-running candidates for the 2016 US election.
Aside from these obvious comparisons, there are also a couple of scenes in Welcome to New York where the dialogue sounds as if it could have been right at home in chez Clinton post the highly publicised Monica Lewinsky sex scandal of 1998, an event which well and truly put Bill’s edacious sexual appetite under the spotlight.
The first exchange occurs just after Deveraux is released on bail and taken to a townhouse somewhere in Manhattan that his wife, who has just flown in from France, has hurriedly rented for US$60,000 a month.
While the humiliated Frenchman initially seems contrite as he denies the rape accusation (“You must trust me – you know who I am; you know everything,” he pleads), it is obvious Simone’s patience for him ran out a long time ago.
“I tried, God knows I tried for years to make you into a man,” she yells back at him. “Do you know what a man is?
“A man knows about consequences – protecting his wife. A man doesn’t follow his dick into every dark alleyway and whore that crosses his path.
“Whatever happened, it is a disaster. That’s what happened – it’s a disaster. Everything I have worked for is … gone.”
While this mood prevails in the second major confrontation between the just-acquitted Deveraux and his wife – which is acted out during Welcome to New York’s final reel – the tenor of the dialogue slightly changes as Simone, who is still asking how the whole debacle “is going to impact my future – my plans?”, begins lamenting the fact their 20 year relationship has been squandered by her husband.
“I didn’t want to be president,” she reflects. “I wanted the life – I wanted to support you. I wanted you to be president. You had everything. You would have taken France in another direction.
“I was so full of your talent; you filled me with talent, you gave me extra. You gave me some balls – I had some balls already, but you gave me some more.”
One can only wonder how similar this kind of dialogue is to the exchanges which took place between the Clintons back in 1998, when the US President was forced to tell his wife that his dalliance with Ms Lewinsky was a little more complicated than he had initially let on. Certainly poor Simone hits it on the head when she declares: “Today’s lover can become tomorrow’s enemy”, thus begging the question: Did Hillary manage to come up with something just as pithy?
By the time Simone utters this line, her husband has had some time to reflect upon his own life during his lonely hours under house arrest. Earlier in the film – while wandering around the Manhattan townhouse alone late at night in what can be described as a Nixonesque moment (sans the savage bitterness) – the thoughtful Frenchman looks back at how his youthful expectations were eventually crushed by life’s grim realities.
God, he recalls, wasn’t found in church, but in the university classroom where “we had righted all the wrongs”.
“It was only when I arrived at the World Bank that the enormity of the world’s pathos – the infinite suffering inherent in human nature – revealed itself in all its horrible manifestations,” Deveraux says.
“I understood the futility of struggling against this insurmountable tsunami.”
Although this revelation doesn’t exactly exonerate him from being the out-of-control horn dog* that he is, it does provide the right note of regret to suggest he did, at some time in the past, feel a degree of empathy for others around him. In this light, it’s possible Ferrara and Depardieu are showing a modicum of sympathy for their protagonist. The director and his leading man, however, are mindful never to confuse feeling powerless with being impotent.
This quiet moment, though, is short-lived as – during the rest of the movie – things move at a fairly cracking pace as Deveraux freely exercises his sometimes reprehensible carnal urges before being caught and punished for his out-of-control conduct.
In the 24 hours leading up to the moment he forcefully masturbates into the face of the chambermaid (Pamela Afesi), the Frenchman is “seen to” by Anna (Anna Lakomy) in his Washington DC office after, somewhat audaciously, trying to bribe a secret service official (Ronald Guttman) with a sexual favour; this before flying up to New York where he takes part in a food and alcohol-fueled orgy with a number of hookers and male friends**.
To cap the evening off, Deveraux then hires two high class Russian prostitutes (Raquel Nave and Natasha Romanova) for a private threesome in his Carlton Hotel room – a scene which is given considerable screen time by the director.
The next day (after the chambermaid incident) – while having lunch with his daughter Sophie (Marie Moute) and her boyfriend Josh (JD Taylor) – he continues to act like a lecherous old man, referring to the bouillabaisse as “the sex party for the fishes” before asking the young couple: “How’s the fucking? Any good?”
“I, for one, fucked all night, and I feel great,” he boasts.
Further on in the movie Deveraux’s strange interest in daughters extends beyond his own when it is revealed – via separate flashbacks – that he has both bedded Emmanuelle (Emmanuelle Vill), the daughter of his friend Michel (Spelman Beaubrun), and unsuccessfully tried to seduce a young journalist (Shanyn Leigh), whom he tells “I know your mother well” as the whole thing starts to resemble an attempted rape.
Fittingly, the Frenchman ends up facing a humiliating price for all of this when he is eventually arrested at JFK airport and taken to a lock-up by a couple of surly plain clothes law officers (Jose Ramon Rosario and Brett G Smith), where he is fingerprinted, strip searched and finally thrown into a cell of predominantly large African American men after being warned by the guards that his fellow inmates don’t like rapists.
This fall from grace is remarkably devastating, thanks in great part to a brutally honest performance by Depardieu, who is absolutely stunning as the sex addict whose party has just come to an embarrassingly abrupt end.
Indeed there is something almost comical about the grossly overweight Deveraux as he wheezes and grunts his way through the humiliating incarceration procedure – an extended sequence that is masterfully constructed by Ferrara and his long time cinematographer Ken Kelch.
After the hapless Frenchman is led through endless cell doors – each with its own buzzer and clearance protocol – he is taken to a room and ordered to strip. At one point a guard (Paul Mitchell) chides him for walking too slowly; later he is ridiculed for his abysmal physical state.
“Some workout, huh – putting your clothes back on?” the disgraced bureaucrat is sarcastically asked as he struggles to get into his underpants, his nakedness revealing a body so horribly obese that its penis can’t be seen clearly because of a hanging gut.
Of course all this would be a little different for Bill Clinton if he was subjected to a similar procedure given he is still in pretty good shape. Nevertheless, it’s likely there are a number of his political enemies who would just love to see both him and Hillary put through this kind of wringer given the sheer hatred many high profile Republicans have for the power couple.
Although Slick Willy isn’t playing a prominent role in his wife’s latest push to become the next US commander-in-chief, perhaps he should watch the Ferrara movie to remind himself that the past has a way of catching up with people – particularly when it comes to high profile sex scandals.
After all, a cursory glance at the Hillary 2016 campaign reveals one of the last things she really needs right now is to have to wade through further controversy to wipe up after her husband’s wandering penis.
Aside from her not-so-impressive record as US Secretary of State from 2009-2013 (yes, she was there when Osama bin Laden was killed, but her enemies now won’t stop carping on about Benghazi and her use of multiple email accounts), the unexpected emergence of wannabe Republican candidate Donald Trump and the entry of popular Democrat Bernie Sanders into the race, Mrs Clinton is effectively looking to inherit an administration which – rightly or wrongly – has been deemed a failure by America’s vocal right wing media.
The fact she’s a serial flip-flopper (before 2000, for example, Hillary spoke out about the plight of the Palestinians until it dawned on her there was a strong Jewish constituency in her New York Senate seat; meanwhile she voted for the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, but is now speaking against it) also does not bode well for her.
Given all of this, it may simply become too difficult for her to have to publicly defend Bill again, especially as she tries to peddle her feminist and family credentials in the same breath.
Oddly, judging from an article which appeared in The New York Post earlier this year, it appears hubbie is still having some trouble coming to his wife’s party.
In a piece which linked Bill’s name with financier and convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein, Maureen Callahan alleged the former US President had flown at least 11 times on The Lolita Express, Epstein’s private plane.
Furthermore, Slick Willy was accused of visiting Little Saint James (also known as Orgy Island), Epstein’s Caribbean retreat. The source of this second allegation was one of Epstein’s so-called teenage sex slaves, Virginia Roberts, who is now in her 30s. According to Callahan, in an affidavit filed in a Florida Federal court, Roberts claimed she was groomed to become part of Epstein’s pleasure empire when she was 15 years-old and was later forced to have sex with Prince Andrew three times – once as part of an 11-person orgy.
To make matters worse for the Clintons, the article also suggested Bill had spent years traveling and partying with Ron Burkle, a billionaire bachelor with a penchant for very young girls.
Putting this salacious scuttlebutt aside (Clinton apparently cut ties with Epstein in 2005 when the authorities started chasing the financier), Callahan does make some pertinent observations regarding the potential threat all this – and more – poses to Hillary’s current White House campaign.
“(There’s) Bill’s solicitation of mystery donors, the concerns about financial malfeasance at the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation, Bill’s racially charged verbal gaffes during Hillary’s 2008 bid and the alleged longtime, serious mistress who diverted Hillary’s presidential campaign from larger problems,” she wrote.
“To be clear, none of this is ancient history, affairs and misbehaviors that the nation has absorbed and seemingly forgiven. These are ongoing compulsions, tugs toward self-destruction that look to destroy his wife instead.”
Ultimately, Callahan observes “when you’re running for office as the first female president of the United States — who, by the way, has spent her entire life advocating for women’s and children’s rights — and your husband has spent years consorting with at least one known pedophile who ensnared girls as young as 14 into his private sex ring, it’s a potentially insurmountable liability”.
Or, to put it another way, not all publicity is necessarily good publicity.
Which brings us back to Welcome to New York.
During the first extended verbal confrontation between the Deverauxs, Simone makes it clear to her husband he must take all of the blame for the situation they are in, despite the fact he tries to convince her that his life too has been “turned upside down” by his arrest.
“No, no, no – that’s not true,” she replies. “You’re life has been upside down from the day you were born.”
“What matters is that you do not know what the truth is.”
Only time will tell if the sometimes upside down Bill really has learnt what the truth is, or if he thinks he can keep sidestepping it by answering accusations of impropriety with lines like: “It depends on what your definition of truth is.”
If he does continue to believe being disingenuous is an effective defence against his enemies, as he did back in 1998 when he was one of the world’s most powerful political figures, Clinton runs the real danger of causing another disaster for his wife, who simply can’t afford to deal with any more of his infidelities while her popularity with the US electorate gets slowly eroded by the conservative hate mongers at Fox News.
Needless to say if events do pan out this way, and Hillary’s 2016 presidential campaign sinks partly because of Bill’s penis-driven baggage, audiences should look back and applaud Ferrara, Zois, Depardieu (in an Oscar-worthy performance) and Bissett who, together, have made one of the most potentially prescient – not to mention overlooked – political films in modern US history.
Words by Mark Fraser
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Footnotes and references
1. Nancy Tartaglione: Gerard Depardieu May Star As IMF Chief as Abel Ferrara Preps Sex Scandal Movie – Deadline.com, December 26, 2011
2. Catherine Bennett: Dominique Strauss-Kahn: The Private Life of a Public Figure – The Guardian, February 15, 2015
3. Maureen Callahan: Bill’s Libido Threatens to Derail Hillary – Again, The New York Post, February 14, 2015
*This was a term used by Bill Maher to describe Bill Clinton on a recent installment of HBO’s Real Time.
**Although there is no suggestion that Deveraux is bisexual.