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Abel Ferrara tackles Dominique Strauss-Kahn case in brutal 'Welcome to New York'

Director Abel Ferrara works behind the scenes of

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Director Abel Ferrara works behind the scenes of "Welcome to New York," in a handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Remstar Films

TORONTO - Director Abel Ferrara is known for exploring the depths of human debauchery, but his latest boundary-pushing film takes on a real public figure: Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

In "Welcome to New York," opening Friday in Toronto before screening in other cities, Gerard Depardieu plays George Devereaux, the president of a French financial institution charged with assaulting a maid in a New York hotel room.

An opening disclaimer asserts the film is a work of fiction, though that didn't stop Strauss-Kahn from threatening a lawsuit earlier this year. In an interview, Ferrara said he was fascinated by the case and did extensive research before writing his script.

"It was such an explosion of press coverage," he said. "There's always that news event that everybody is talking about. I was in New York at the time. Then you realize everybody’s talking about this all over the world."

The film portrays Devereaux as a sociopathic, sex-addicted monster who travels to New York on business and goes on a 12-hour bender of booze, drugs and uninhibited sex with escorts. He finishes his trip by assaulting a terrified chambermaid, played by Pamela Afesi.

Strauss-Kahn, former head of the International Monetary Fund, was ultimately acquitted of sexual assault in 2011. He later admitted to "inappropriate," although not "violent," behaviour and settled out of court.

Ferrara — the director of cult classics like "Bad Lieutenant" and "The Funeral" — said Depardieu was the only actor he could imagine playing the smug, self-absorbed Devereaux.

"At this point of time, I need the actor from the get-go. He's an essential element to the deal," he said. "He's a great actor. He understands the topic. He understands the guy. He knows the situation as a French man, as a person in that world."

Some critics have said it will be difficult to separate Depardieu's persona from the role, as the 65-year-old actor has himself been troubled by erratic behaviour — for example, urinating in a plane cabin and driving his scooter drunk in France. His daughter declared in 2013 that she expects he only has five years to live due to his reckless lifestyle.

In one alarming scene, Devereaux is forced to undergo a strip search upon entering prison for the first time. Depardieu's obese, aging body is fully exposed in a long, unflinching take.

"That's the deal. That's how it is. It's an ugly scene. It's a degrading deal and no one really cares if he's the emperor or the president," said Ferrara. "At that point, he's just another perp in line."

Jacqueline Bisset plays his furious wife Simone, who immediately sees that the arrest will destroy her husband's political career, which she helped build. Devereaux, on the other hand, continually proclaims his innocence and appears to assume he will get away with the crime.

But even as Devereaux is portrayed as an remorseless rapist and monster, Depardieu imbues him with an element of tragedy. Ferrara described the character as an "addict" and "sociopath" completely lacking in self-understanding.

"You've got to have sympathy for a sick guy who doesn't even know he's sick," he said. "You've got to show compassion all the way down the line. But he's got to be compassionate to himself. That's really the point.

"When is that character going to sense the destruction he's doing? When does he sense the pain he's causing? He's in pain, but he's a disaster and the people around him are suffering because of it. Does he realize that? Is he ever going to come to a moment of truth? In this movie, not really. But the point is that you have the hope he could change."

The director also has a new film based on a true story, "Pasolini," screening at the Toronto International Film Festival. The flick stars Willem Dafoe as the controversial Italian film director whose murder in 1975 remains shrouded in mystery.

"He was a teacher. We learn to make movies watching his films," said Ferrara. "He was a great artist, a journalist, a political activist, a poet, killed in the prime of his life. He was another one of these fascinating stories. And Willem was able to capture the spirit of him."

The director said he is drawn to narratives ripped from the real world but doesn't believe one can ever fully uncover the truth. Ultimately, Ferrara said he doesn't know whether the character he created in "Welcome to New York" resembles Strauss-Kahn.

"I don't know the guy. I barely know myself. We're creating a character," he said. "But you've got to do it through self-knowledge and a journey into trying to understand where we're coming from through the reflection of his actions."

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