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Scandalous Cannes film “Welcome to New York” ruffles French feathers

May 26, 2014

(Published in The Malay Mail on 24 May)

 

Expect the unexpected is what is said about the Cannes Film Festival, now in its 67th year. And the ‘unexpected’ is certainly what I experienced on Sunday evening while watching “Welcome to New York”, a film screened in Cannes the previous night and released straight to video on demand here in France.

 

Gérard Depardieu’s bearlike grunting and slapping of naked boobs and derrières for the first 20 minutes, had me jumping from the comfort of my sofa to close the living room door and turn the volume down, twice, for fear of waking up one of my kids; they aren’t ready for a screen full of porn. Nor was I.

 

Abel Ferrara’s film was inspired by the alleged sexual assault of a hotel maid in New York by Dominique Strauss-Kahn, DSK, the former managing director of the International Monetary Fund, and the leading candidate for the 2012 French Presidency.

 

It’s a story of “power and sex and money” Depardieu, who plays Mr. Devereaux (read DSK) in the film, told reporters on Saturday night at a Cannes beach club, adding that it was a tragedy of “Shakespearean” proportions. I doubt Shakespeare would welcome this lofty analogy, but there was there no debating this point given the reporters’ preoccupation with gift bags packed with Viagra, handcuffs, black masks and petit whips distributed before the film’s first screening.

 

I use the term “story” loosely as it’s hardly fiction given the close resemblance to the arrest of DSK at JFK airport in May 2011 on charges of sexual assault and attempted rape of a maid in Sofitel Hotel, New York. Like everyone else living in Manhattan at that time, I followed the DSK case, particularly as the lawyer’s maid was my friend’s husband, and was responsible for drawing up a confidential settlement with DSK in which the charges were dropped.

 

He politely declined my, and a billion other journalists’, request for comment following Monday’s announcement that DSK would be filing a defamation claim against the film’s producers. Jean Vail, DSK’s lawyer, called the film “une crotte de chien” (dog shit) which “frightened and sickened” his client; strange given DSK says he hasn’t watched it (or intends to do so).

 

Mind you, if I were in his shoes, I wouldn’t be racing to see it either, as the charismatic and ever-controversial Gérard Depardieu assumes the role of a sex addict — displaying often violent and uncontrollable lust for lesbians, prostitutes, journalists, chambermaids, young lawyers alike — very convincingly (his now porky proportions help too) and with ease, even during the squeamish prison strip search scene.

 

In fact, what DSK ought to be doing is saving his time and energy for fighting the “aggravated pimping” charges he is facing here in France for participating in a prostitution ring in Lille.

 

The film left me with a strong sense of sympathy for Nafissatou Diallo, the Guinea immigrant maid, who I hope takes a rain check on the film when it is released in the US later this year; the scene depicting attempted rape is very disturbing.

 

But also for DSK’s former wife, French journalist Anne Sinclair, a well known and respected television and radio interviewer in France played by actress Jacqueline Bisset in the film. Like Hillary Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky affair, Sinclair came to the rescue of her husband in his hour of need, notably financially, covering lawyer’s fees, bail (US$6m), and monthly rental (approximately US$50,000) for a downtown duplex where DSK was kept under house arrest, before (wisely) divorcing him last year.

 

Writing in the Huffington Post, she expressed her upset over the “clearly antisemitic attacks” she claims were made about her family in the film. I watched it in French, but caught enough of the terse husband/wife conversation at the end of the two hour film, to pick up his criticism of Sinclair’s Jewish heritage. Her father and maternal grandfather, wealthy art dealer Paul Rosenburg, fled Nazi-occupied France in the 1940s to the safety of New York.

 

As satisfying as it was to watch a film depicting the epic downfall of a public figure of questionable morality, Welcome to New York has had a less than warm welcome, verging on the frigid, here in France; it bypassed cinemas and headed straight for television screen here.

 

It’s no Cannes Palme d’or contender, but it is certain to “welcome” more publicity if legal proceedings are commenced, not to mention Depardieu’s unnerving yet masterful performance.

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