Directed by Abel Ferrara
Written by Abel Ferrara and Chris Zois
Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoner natures who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside, cities will never have rest from their evils, –nor the human race, as I believe, –and then only will this our State have a possibility of life and behold the light of day.
-The Republic, Plato
Starring an aged and ruthless Gerard Depardieu as Devereaux, a French banker accused of rape while staying in New York, Abel Ferrara’s Welcome to New York is a feverish meta-textual and multilingual portrait of contemporary privilege. The character is an evocation of Dominique Strauss-Kahn who was both the head of the International Monetary Fund and a favourite in the 2012 French Presidential race when he was accused of sexual assault while staying at a hotel in New York City. Ferrara strips much of the context of the event, focusing on the absolute pursuit of pleasure, and the strange philosophical digressions of our lead.
The theory of transgression has long been associated with Abel Ferrara. His work in New York in the late 1970s and 1980s put him squarely in the heat of the Cinema of Transgression centered in New York City, which aimed to break down the boundaries of taboo and convention in cinema. Transgression also evokes the work of Georges Bataille, who wrote about it extensively in his essays on eroticism. Eroticism can only exist through the transgression of taboo, for without taboo there is no eroticism. Welcome to New York depicts sexuality but is decidedly un-erotic; there is little left to transgress because Devereaux is not bound by the rules of society, as he is above it.
The idea of unbridled sexual perversion as being tied to the downfall of society is not a new one. It is often discussed in context of the Roman Empire, as in it’s final days the pursuit of personal pleasure outweighed the greater needs of the society as a whole. It should be no surprise that in Plato’s Republic, even he discusses the importance of controlling the sexual urges of the citizens for society to run effectively but people don’t like the idea of being controlled, so it must be done through suggestion and the implementation of taboo. The Marquis de Sade saw the political freedom offered by transgressing sexual taboos, and centuries later Pasolini re-interpreted De Sade to bring us Salo: 120 Years of Sodom to brutally decimate fascistic impulses within Italy. Sex becomes power, and sex without eroticism is a dangerous reflection of a society without morality and that favors the powerful over the weak.
The sex scenes in Welcome to New York become a parody of desire. Gerard Depardieu has perhaps never given a performance so physical and guttural, as he engages in a variety of sexual acts with prostitutes and employees. His corpulent form transcends mere parody of excessive appetites and becomes a strangely beautiful form of writhing animalism. Standing alongside Michaelangelo’s David, Depardieu’s form becomes the real image of power and the perverted image of virtue in a society that has lost itself. To call it ugly would be a disservice to the film and to the motif of the figure in the visual arts. Both monstrous and human, his physicality dominates the film. As essential as his body and his face are, his confident French, broken English and excessive panting reveal both the failures and the passion of philosophy. Though seemingly at the top of the world, with endless power and influence, ultimately Devereaux is merely a pawn of the greater structures of wealth that seemingly transcend traditional understanding. Devereaux may actually be the philosopher-ruler that Plato was describing, but a failed and perverted version of it. His is not the philosopher who can save humanity, because he is no less human than any of the rest of us.
The disgust we feel towards Devereaux has to do as much with his actions as his apparent lack of remorse. Yet, in a bizarre twist he is less concerned with his status and money as we may have initially believed, he is a villain of apathy and selfishness more than anything else. His image is basically inconsequential, and his privilege exists as a means to feed his hunger. Jacqueline Bisset, as his thankless wife, becomes an interesting contrast to his excess. Beautifully restrained and obsessed with her image, at first she is portrayed as a victim and enabler, but eventually morphs into something far more complex and powerful. To call Devereaux a victim of his wife’s power would be an exaggeration, but he is as entrapped in a sickly structure as the rest of us.
What is the pursuit of happiness? It is apparently the impetus of society and ideally is meant to be shared between the self and the whole. Welcome to New York explores metatextually the relationship between art and life and continually referencing Gerard Depardieu the man, and not the character he plays. Depardieu is neither man nor monster, warrior or philosopher, artist or businessman… he is defined by absence more than he is by presence. This lack becomes the central focus of our contemporary life, and in spite of the excess of money, of wealth and knowledge we are empty. To root the narrative in this kind of self-referential reality brings new levels of immediacy, as the walls between reality and fiction become effaced. Ultimately, most of us believe the version of reality that best suits or ambitions and pursuit of pleasure. Philosophy or sex or drugs, they are all means of filling the gap. It is not a question of monster or man, but of absence and presence.