The 'Dominique Strauss-Kahn Movie': Really Tough on DSK

Premiering at Cannes, Welcome to New York is a satisfying fictionalized portrait, while an Italian coming-of-age story and an Yves Saint Laurent biopic are also worthwhile viewing.

Parties and poor taste play nearly as big a role at the Cannes Film Festival as movies, anyone here will tell you. Both were on ample display Saturday night, according to a colleague who attended the soiree for Abel Ferrara's Welcome to New York—a.k.a. "the DSK movie"—following a screening organized by French distributor Wild Bunch.

I wasn't at the gathering, but the scene my source described would have been too outrageous to believe if she hadn’t shown me the photos to prove it. "Dirty sex" kits were distributed to guests. Among drink options was something called the "Viagra cocktail." Some men at the event were clad in bathrobes (a sartorial reference to Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s attire when he allegedly assaulted hotel housekeeper Nafissatou Diallo in May 2011). Others were disguised as police officers. And in the middle of it all lay a big bed—with a sign that read "Love Hotel"—on which guests posed for pictures. I guess we should just be grateful the cocktail waitresses weren’t wearing maid costumes.

Accounts of the party, ranging from mildly amused to downright disgusted, could be heard up and down the Croisette on Sunday, largely overshadowing the film itself, which Wild Bunch, in an unusual move for a French distribution company, released on VOD and cable last night.

A compelling, ever-so-lightly fictionalized rehashing of the events that saw Strauss-Kahn go from IMF chief and French presidential hopeful to reviled figure and tabloid fodder, Welcome to New York is the most satisfying work from Ferrara in quite some time. It also gives Gérard Depardieu—better known these days for his professed love of Russia and disdain for France's tax policies—a role worthy of his talents.

Ferrara (working from a screenplay he wrote with Christ Zois) and his remarkable leading man paint DSK (or Devereaux, as he's called in the film) as a brilliant, but delusional libertine drunk on power, authority, and autonomy. There is some relatively explicit sex in Welcome to New York, and a fair bit of nudity, but the director never slips into over-the-top sensationalism; he knows he has a gripping story on his hands, and he keeps his focus.

Sex, of course, is a huge part of the DSK narrative. The movie's most provocative, dramatically resonant insight is that the politician's inability to keep his pants on and his hands to himself stems less from any pathology or compulsion than from his own stubborn worldview. In Welcome to New York, it's not that Devereaux can't control himself—it's that he won't. Abstaining from pleasure amounts, in his mind, to conforming, and why would he want to do that?

Ferrara never justifies DSK's behavior. Indeed, the man we see in the movie is an unrepentant sexual aggressor and would-be rapist. If anything, though, the filmmaker is tougher on DSK's ex-wife Anne Sinclair, an accomplished journalist who stood by her husband during his legal woes before divorcing him once the dust settled. Sharply played by Jacqueline Bisset, "Simone," as she is called in the film, is a status-obsessed woman more upset over her dashed dreams of first ladyhood than her husband's misconduct and their crumbling marriage. Most troubling of all is Ferrara's decision to have Simone constantly talk about money, and his insistence on her attachment to Israel (when we first see her, she's being toasted at a dinner given by a pro-Israel group). Given Sinclair's background—she is Jewish, and her grandfather, renowned French art dealer Paul Rosenberg, fled the Nazis in 1940—it's a particularly nasty touch, and reeks of latent anti-Semitism and sexism.

Another major French figure, though one with a considerably less tarnished legacy, was the subject of a hotly awaited competition entry: Bertrand Bonello's Saint Laurent, which finds the director of 2011's very fine House of Tolerance torn between the constraints of big-screen biopics and his own art-house instincts.

Whereas Jalil Lespert's Yves Saint Laurent (released in France and the U.K. earlier this year and heading to U.S. cinemas soon) focused on the late French designer's romantic and professional partnership with Pierre Bergé, Bonello takes a trickier approach, choosing to explore what Saint Laurent calls his "combat of elegance." With a splendid sense of mise-en-scene and a nuanced performance from lead actor Gaspard Ulliel, the director pulls us into the character's aesthetic and erotic gaze, his trance-like attraction to beautiful things. The result is a gorgeous swoon of a film that proves a feast for the senses if not for the mind and heart.

Bonello finds new and surprising ways to capture moments that, in other movies, tend toward the visually predictable. When Saint Laurent first spots playboy Jacques de Bascher (played by a smoldering Louis Garrel) at a night club, for example, the camera tracks back and forth between the two men across the dance floor, tracing the inception of their mutual desire.

For all its captivating style, however, the movie feels somewhat undernourished. If Bonello's decision to leave the up-and-down relationship between Saint Laurent and Bergé (Jérémie Renier), as well as the former's pre-fashion life, mainly off-screen allows him to avoid the usual cliché-fraught themes of success, jealousy and betrayal, it also limits his conception of the character. In one of the film's most striking, Bonello-esque images, snakes slither through our protagonist's bed sheets, but we don't fully grasp the dread and anxiety fuelling the vision, because we don’t really know what's at stake for him.

As biopics go, Saint Laurent is a half-triumph of style over substance. In other words, though Bergé reportedly withheld his blessing, Saint Laurent himself might have approved.

A slightly stronger competition entry was Alice Rohrwacher's The Wonders, a delicate and pleasingly lived-in coming-of-age story from Italy, and the first of only two main selections by women.

Centering on pre-teen Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu), the eldest of four daughters of hippie-ish German honey farmers in the central Italian countryside, the movie is refreshingly free of the harshness that tends to characterize recent European films about adolescence (no rape or violence, hallelujah!). With gentle handheld camerawork and cinematography that gives the setting a pastoral glow, Rohrwacher (whose debut Corpo Celeste screened in Directors' Fortnight here in 2011) conjures a vivid, specific sense of place. She also doesn’t push her themes or the turns in her story too hard, whether it's Gelsomina's desire for the young German delinquent who comes to stay with her family, the growing distance between her and her proud, irascible father (Sam Louwyck), or the shifting agricultural fortunes of rural Europe.

That light touch protects The Wonders from heavy-handedness. It also prevents the movie from truly grabbing hold of your emotions. Rohrwacher devotes too much time to a subplot involving a tacky reality TV show (the hostess is played by Monica Bellucci, a white-wigged, glitter-strewn Fellini-esque beauty), when she should be more fully exploring Gelsomina's inner life. Still, Rohrwacher is a talent to watch—and a name to keep in mind on prize night if the other big competition titles disappoint.

A version of this post appeared on France 24, an Atlantic partner site.