Abel Ferrara's Bad Politician
By Tanner Tafelski
Abel Ferrara's cinema is a cinema of the body. In his films they fuck, fight, and perform. Sometimes, like in his film about filmmaking, Dangerous Game (1993), they do all these things at once. Welcome to New York (2014) is Ferrara's most recent iteration of the body. Unlike anything in his previous work, what's displayed and examined in this film is a tired, old, protuberant one.
Welcome to New York is a thinly veiled account of Dominique Strauss-Kahn's sexual assault on Nafissatou Diallo, a maid at Midtown Manhattan's Sofitel Hotel, on May 14, 2011. The film follows George Devereaux (Gérard Depardieu) before, during, and after a night of debauchery. Yet Ferrara's film doesn't begin with Devereaux, but with Depardieu. Part and parcel with Ferrara's recent flair for merging fiction and non-fiction (itself becoming some sort of art house convention), and as seen in Chelsea on the Rocks (2008) and Napoli, Napoli, Napoli (2009) among others, Depardieu waxes on about playing Devereaux to a fake news crew (the giveaway is the presence of Ferrara's girlfriend Shanyn Leigh, who appears once more later on in the film). "I don't like acting. I prefer to feel something, and I don't feel him," he says. What's he playing then? Is he embodying a numb character, one that fills the void with ravenous carnality?
Numbness and the void are two characteristics that I would ascribe to Harvey Keitel's LT in Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant (1992). That New York film, complete with a one-man show performance, is the flipside to Welcome to New York. Alternating between naturalistic long shots that orient characters within a space and woozy handheld shots, between grey city tones and garish blues and reds, and shot through with blasts of Schoolly D's "Signifying Rapper," Bad Lieutenant evokes the blinkered consciousness of the film's drug-addled protagonist.
Welcome to New York, on the other hand, is spare, sober, and sobering. In a highly unusual move for Ferrara, he uses next to no music, save for the ironic insertion of an "America the Beautiful" cover at the beginning of the film. DP Ken Kelsch (who also did the camerawork for Bad Lieutenant) doesn't exactly observe, but catalogues the events unfolding. All the better for a film in which the narrative is a step-by-step, blow-by-blow account of a powerful public figure's eventual incarceration and house arrest.
If LT is a bad lieutenant, Devereaux is a bad politician. Like LT, he exploits his powerful position to get what he wants — and that's beautiful young women by any means necessary. It's his hunger, and he has no intent on stopping. "You see his addiction, but he doesn't see his addiction, you know?" Ferrara said during a roundtable discussion when the film played at Cannes unofficially. LT gradually becomes aware of his self-destruction over the course of Bad Lieutenant, turning him into a redemptive figure. "I did so many bad things!" he wails while hallucinating a martyred Jesus. Devereaux is beyond saving and the savior; he's set in his ways, visualized by a final what-are-you-looking-at-look at the camera in the last seconds of the film.
LT and Devereaux's bodies are of different shapes and sizes. A product of his profession, LT's is brutally toned, stocky, and muscular. Although hidden behind sport coats, his flesh is on display during one drunken orgy in a fleapit apartment. Arms spread out and away from his sides, his sculpted torso warmly lit, and wobbling from side to side, he presents a stigmatized or martyred body to the camera. In contrast, Devereaux is rotund and misshapen; it's a body in excess. His exposed body is first on view during the uncomfortable sexual assault scene which, considering his sensibility, Ferrara handles delicately. After Devereaux's night of partying, the maid gingerly, politely walks into his hotel suite the next morning, expecting to do her job. As she inspects the rooms, the camera glides past her to the bathroom. Fresh out of the shower and still sopping wet, Devereaux quickly wraps a towel around his waist as he spots her, who is stunned and apologizes for her presence. He grabs her and wrestles her to the floor. A full shot captures the assault from a distance, which is further obscured by the appearance of Devereaux's backside. The towel slips, exposing Devereaux's small, white buttocks that contrasts with his bulging belly. When the maid flees the room, the camera lingers on Devereaux sitting on the edge of his bed, forcefully exhaling from his mouth. What we are seeing is an exhausted and monstrous body out of control.
Devereaux is nude only once more during the film, but this time his body is controlled, not by himself but by the U.S. criminal justice system. Apprehended just before his flight to Paris takes off, Devereaux is first whisked to a holding cell with a group of other prisoners, then shuttled off for a mug shot, before finally being jerked into a room where two police officers strip search him. In a mere eight shots, this exquisitely terse scene demonstrates the sheer amount of time it takes for Devereaux to remove his clothes and perform the tasks the increasingly irritated officers demand of him — squat, shake your hair, lift up your left leg, your right leg. Depardieu gives Devereaux a panoply of sounds to express his discomfort — grunting, wheezing, squawking. In fact, Depardieu's performance is brilliant because he invests in Devereaux a rich assortment of non-verbal sounds coming from his body. After taking them off, Devereaux begins the slow process of putting his clothes back on, opting, oddly enough, not to put on his underwear beneath his slacks. "Some workout, huh? Putting your clothes back on," retorts the officer doing all the talking. Stripped of his clout as the head of the International Monetary Fund, Devereaux is reduced to his essence. He is a body in disrepair within the cold confines of prison.
But this isn't the end for Devereaux. It never is for those with money. He continues to do what he does even at the end of the film — imprisoned in a Tribeca townhouse. "It's another one of the films we make where the character goes from Point A to Point A," Ferrara observes. His marriage in the toilet, his presidential candidacy out the window, Devereaux remains what he was at the beginning of the film — an unapologetic addict intoxicated by the body.
Published May 2nd, 2016
Tanner Tafelski is a film and art journalist based in New York City. He specializes in arthouse, horror, avant-garde, underground, and micro-budget cinemas, as well as experimental music.