Welcome to New York’s opening promises a stylish humanist harangue. Gérard Depardieu appears on screen, initially as himself, uttering staged, barely audible pseudo-profundities pertaining to his attraction to demanding roles that dare one to feel for challenging characters. This moment segues into a credit sequence set to Paul Hipp’s pointedly disenfranchised cover of “America the Beautiful,” which is soon accompanied by images of 100-dollar bills and banking institutions, the latter of which are framed at contemptuously canted angles that literalize the concept of the United States as a morally dubious land in which money talks and everything but bullshit walks. The audience, then, is succinctly primed for another film about the ravages wrought by the ever-increasing social distance between the higher and lower classes.
Ferrara ultimately delivers that film, but in a surprisingly disconcerting fashion. Welcome to New York is a tour of heaven and hell, contemporary America-style, as taken by a wealthy white Frenchman who embodies everything that most of us resent in the oft-discussed, rarely directly seen “one percent.” Devereaux (a fearless Depardieu), a fictional stand-in for Dominique Strauss-Kahn, is powerful and filthy rich (with significant global banking connections that are only gradually revealed), accustomed to roosting in the top floors of the very best offices and hotels where he’s waited on by beautiful young women whom he casually regards as objects ripe for the sexual plucking. And pluck them he routinely does, as Devereaux is an insatiable satyr who devotes himself to consuming prodigious amounts of drugs, girls, and booze until the party suddenly stops when he’s accused by a hotel maid of an initially unseen sexual assault. Seemingly within minutes, Devereaux is regarded as a common criminal and at the mercy of New York City’s police, until he can contact his wife, Simone (Jaqueline Bisset), and have her set everyone straight with his diplomatic immunity and priceless attorneys.
The early scenes with Devereaux in his natural rarefied habitat strike a disquietingly neutral, observational note that intentionally unsettles the blunt outrage of the opening. Ferrara doesn’t fetishize the banker’s initial orgiastic consumption as much as one might expect (the camera’s more taken with the sleekly dark-toned interiors of the hotel than with the many shapely thong-dotted derrieres), but he doesn’t demonize it either. There’s a smoothness, a chilliness, almost an aura of indifference, to these sequences that’s distinctive from the tone of the luridly obsessive Catholic thrillers on which Ferrara initially made his name, before evolving into the elegant, comparatively calmer and funnier formalist of Go Go Tales and 4:44 Last Day on Earth. Yet this resigned omniscience is soon revealed by Devereaux’s temporary downfall to be a red herring that softens the audience for the kill.
When Devereaux is arrested, as he’s about to board a plane for a return trip to France, he’s treated contemptuously by the proletariat police as a monster. Devereaux’s guilt hasn’t been determined yet, but it doesn’t matter, as he’s rich, fat, white, and about to board a first-class flight that would probably set these officers back a month’s pay, at least. Devereaux is the sort of person who always gets away with things, and these police know it—their understandable anger and exhaustion emitting off of them as palpable emotional fumes in the cramped corridors and chambers of the police station. The episodes with the police have a constricting intensity that’s comically exacerbated by Depardieu’s considerable size, which is used to testify to the character’s soft, posh existence, and by Ferrara’s relentlessly close framing, which dramatizes the humiliating claustrophobia of temporary holding cells, photo lineups, and strip searches with a degree of prolonged exactitude that knows few immediate comparisons in American cinema.
Ferrara examines a flawed caste system, designed to subjugate have-nots before their guilt has been determined, by ironically dramatizing the mistreatment of a “have” who is eventually revealed to have committed the crime that brings about this ordeal, and who’s even more disturbingly understood to nurse no remorse for this rape, which he sees, with piggish self-pity, as a necessary gratification of his desires. The attempted prevention of those desires, in Devereaux’s mind, represents the kind of oppression that less fortunate people, like his victim, must learn to accept for real as a given. Ferrara presents a vision of poetic justice, but refuses to allow the audience to enjoy it. Devereaux’s discomfort in the holding cell is so viscerally unpleasant that it fosters in the audience an instinctual empathy with his desire to escape it, rather than to see potential justice served. Devereaux’s procurement of bail, granted on the basis of his stature and ability to pay for private security that ensures a comfortable quasi-house arrest while on trial, is a betrayal of what this man deserves, but it’s also, for the audience, a reprieve from a confinement that Ferrara has devoted nearly 30 minutes to detailing.
These dissonances are intensified by a hard cut from Devereaux in a cell to a shot of Simone walking through the $60,000-a-month home that her husband will soon transition into. Leisurely tracking shots offer the audience an uncomfortable refuge (allowing us to drink in luxury) that reaches its climax when Simone lays briefly on the bed in the master bedroom, steeling a small moment for herself. It’s the kind of scene that angry social-minded directors rarely allow their capitalist villains, and this is but one of many testaments to Ferrara’s considerable control, bespeaking of his commitment to his film as an artist rather than as a preacher (a playful and romantic sex scene between Devereaux and a conquest near the end of the film is another example of this artistry). But that empathy is routinely challenged, particularly in a lingering close-up on the face of a black man about to stand trial for something after Devereaux’s bail has been officially arranged. The impression is inescapable: This man will face the penal procedures Devereaux has just undergone, and whether one “deserves” such treatment is potentially immaterial to its administration; either way, this man won’t have a literal “get out of jail free” card to spring him from the severity of his new circumstances.
The film’s peculiarly exhilarating effect can be attributed to a sense of social outrage that’s transcended for the sake of metaphoric social clarity. Devereaux is a pointer for highlighting the precarious and hypocritical dimensions that exist within one first-world society in which everyone is given their rules to begrudgingly observe for the sake of presiding infrastructural stability, such as it is. The title, which is facetious, indicates a city as a representation of a country as a representation of a portion of the European-influenced world. Though Ferrara has adamantly protested this cut of the film, which is 16 minutes shorter than the version shown to acclaim at international film festivals, and which apparently evades the issue of Devereaux’s guilt for far longer than the filmmaker intended, this is, nevertheless, one those fortuitous instances of artistic tampering in which the studio apparently didn’t understand the film enough to ruin it.