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The New Moral Order: Abel Ferrara's "Welcome to New York"

Ferrara's film witnesses a shift occurring in society where crime is no longer a marginal, illicit reality, but the tacitly accepted rule.
“If women didn’t exist, all the money in the world would have no meaning.” —Aristotele Onassis
For over forty years now Abel Ferrara’s cinema has spewed out from the gangrenous wounds of our civilization of images. Never mind how ugly it was, it was always in your face. And unapologetically so. The damnation of life, as low as it could possibly get, and the existential dirt polite society and cinema sweep under the carpet have been Ferrara’s carnal muses. If crime and the underworld were often his preferred milieu, it never was out of teen-aged fascination for the dark side of society but because there he senses and lenses the bio-illogical matrix of our lives: the law of the jungle rationalized into the language of the Bible. Redemption in his cinema is never a concrete possibility, it functioned as a sort of moral mirage for lost souls—the deceitful promise Catholicism feeds its guilt-stricken followers. In pursuance of the traces the character Mr. Devereaux, an avatar for former Managing Director of the IMF Dominique Strauss-Kahn in Ferrara’s new film Welcome to New York, hardly bothered to cover up, the director’s cinema enters the vacuum of the new moral order: the gated kingdom of social nihilism wherein none can be saved for the very simple fact that none wants to.
Welcome to New York, which opens in the U.S. this Friday, in fact witnesses a fundamental shift occurring in our societies wherein crime is no longer a marginal, illicit reality, but the tacitly accepted rule. The financial institutions that effectively govern us, way beyond the rule of any law, act as supernatural Kafkian organisms no longer bound to a social order. Quite the contrary, they thrive on chaos and economic disorder. If entire national economies can be disposed of and their collapse decreed so as to profit from social decay, for a man that can afford a $60,000 a month “prison cell,” buying his way out of a trial and getting away with the vilest of all crimes must be standard procedure. Yet the “truth” about Strauss-Kahn’s actual case in Welcome to New York is almost irrelevant; what Ferrara seems to be interested in is to draw a modern parable that while based on an individual case concerns a universal issue. The systematic abuse of power or, more accurately, the abusive nature of power itself.
When everything is monetized, anything can be bought: silence, verdicts and so on. The true horror is that this is completely normal for those who can afford it. Played by Gérard Depardieu, Mr. Devereaux in Ferrara’s film doesn’t come across as the “canonical” sex fiend; the expression that most characterizes him throughout the film is one of incredulity and confusion. “How can I, the head of the IMF, be held accountable for my actions?” is the question Devereaux has the (in)decency of never asking. The International Monetary Fund’s record is indeed criminal, interest rates on its loans make the mafia look like the boy scouts and the fact that its former head has been accused of rape by an African maid is the most tragic and accurate metaphor of its institutional nature. Yet hardly anyone has ever contested the legitimacy of its actions. In his new book “Heroes” Franco Berardi observes how:
As it becomes increasingly institutionalized, crime loses its secrecy and demands access to the spectacle. The visibility of crime becomes part of the effectiveness and persuasiveness of power. Competition is all about subduing, cheating, predating. Blaming the victims is part of the game: you are guilty of your inability to subdue, to cheat and to plunder, therefore you will be submitted to the blackmail of debt and to the tyranny of austerity.
When victims are easily turned into culprits, for perpetrators to get away with it is just a matter of flaunting expensive lawyers and letting injustice run its course. Devereaux’s trial is in fact carefully choreographed by the lawyers his wife hires, they advise her to be on his side so that his public image will survive the media lynching. The nature of the crime he’s been accused of is of no importance to him, his wife or their lawyers— the problem from the very beginning is how to get away with it. It is very telling that when Devereaux and his wife Simone (Jaqueline Bissett) argue about what happened, the fact that a woman has been sexually assaulted is beside the point. “A man thinks about consequences,” Simone tells her husband The true victim of Devereaux’s sexual crime is the careers and reputation of him and his wife, not the maid, who is in fact not even mentioned during their domestic arguments. Impunity is inherent to their social position; the freedom to commit any crime is a privilege that comes with power. The monstrosity of their reasoning derives primarily from their status quo rather than from any personal “deformation.” Needless to say, Devereaux belongs to the human arsenal of Ferrara’s cinema which remains as uncompromising as ever, but reality seems to be catching up with it. What he has consistently explored and staged throughout his life is no longer relegated to the lower strata of society but is under the flashlights and spelled out in headlines.
Stylistically his cinema has somatized this shift and has in fact done away with those expressionist devices that once described the inner torment of his character. Their hallucinated subjectivity made way to an almost “objective” criminal neorealism. What had once been internally played out in frantic and abysmal displacement is now aseptically rendered. Addiction has long been a metaphorical prop in Ferrara’s poetic underworld—Kathleen in The Addiction, the cop in Bad Lieutenant, Matty in Blackout,—but this time its narrative role is different. While for the aforementioned characters addiction constituted a moral vexation, something that mined the ethical basis of their troubled existences, in Welcome to New York sexual addiction is not a problem in itself, nor are its potentially criminal “collateral effects.” The moral order against which Ferrara’s past characters have struggled to reckon with has now vanished; the contemporary financial overlords act remorselessly. Physical urges, just like monetary value, follow completely arbitrary trajectories, they can be dissipated at will, no matter about consequences—casualties may arise, regrets not.
Depardieu carries on his gargantuan body the weight of a magisterial performance, incarnating the neo-tribal chief of a most powerful clan whose daily routine of immaterial speculations is inversely mirrored in its impetuous carnal ravenousness. His panting mimicry, unutterable compulsions and exuberant presence coldly framed by a photography that rarely relies on natural light. Depardieu completes with this film his own accidental trilogy about contemporary masculinity, that in almost reverse order recounts the undead corpse of the patriarch (the previous two episodes being Marco Ferreri’s 1976 La dernière femme and 1978 Bye, Bye Monkey). Jacqueline Bisset brings to life the quintessential specimen of a neoliberal feminist, an accomplished and empowered woman devoutly pandering to the phallocratic order of (high) society. Ferrara officiates this unholy marriage between ambitions and interests with the raw authenticity of those whose last and least preoccupation is to please anyone, be they audiences, critics, bien pensants or festival committees. So much so that the version of the film being distributed in the U.S. is puritanically purged of the most “controversial” (read: sex themed) scenes which, considering the nature of the film and its muse, would be ridiculous if it wasn’t pathetically sanctimonious.
I enjoyed reading your impassioned, layered discussion of this film and Ferrara; however, I might quibble—gingerly, for I may be misunderstanding you—the comment, “Redemption in his cinema is never a concrete possibility, it functioned as a sort of moral mirage for lost souls—the deceitful promise Catholicism feeds its guilt-stricken followers.” I’m not sure that Ferrara sees redemption as “a moral mirage”; in fact, I’d agree that it is never a “concrete possibility” because—well, because it isn’t. It’s his characters who want it to be so, and that’s the test of their morality. Redemption is a closed circuit in Ferrara, sparked by virtue and circling around and back into itself, more Ouroboros than pact. But his Bad Lieutenants want what we all desire: rescue and reward. Redemption is certainly a promise (in Ferrara’s films partly Platonic/Aristotelian, partly Christian); it’s his characters, though, who deceive themselves in thinking they’ll know they’re redeemed because everything will go their way. Nevertheless, my view of redemption in Ferrara (and I’ll admit I’ll have to re-view much of his work before I can more fully stand by it) does find its place in your reading of Welcome to New York, if only because the film seems to have decided that its characters are already in Hell, where their “impetuous carnal ravenousness” (not that I would presume, but man I love your turns of phrase) feeds on others’ tails, not their own—hence the loss of any possibility of redemption/perfection. After all, Hell is the place where there is no hope but passion to spare. Long story short, this sounds like Wolf of Wall Street without a sense of humor—which is fine with me.
I can’t resist complementing pmarasa’s comment with a reference to Ferrara’s unavailable and forgotten masterpiece “The Addiction,” which grappled directly with redemption (and its absence in Hell) at an even deeper, more theological level than “Bad Lieutenant.” Those early years of Nicholas St. John collaborations were magical.

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