"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, May 19, 2022

In Praise of Promiscuity–Sexual Freedom In A Prudish, Censorious Society

Abel Ferrara best known for The Bad Lieutenant, directed Welcome To New York – the story of a wealthy, powerful, promiscuous French politician who is accused of rape by a New York City prosecutor who later drops all charges.

The story is obviously but loosely based on the saga of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former head of the International Monetary Fund and presumptive President of France who was accused by an African maid of rape.  The prosecutor, Cyrus Vance Jr. overstepped his bounds, apparently motivated by political ambition, and pursued the case against Strauss-Kahn despite increasingly exculpatory evidence.  Strauss-Kahn returned to France, his political career ruined, but because of his financial genius, remained a well-remunerated consultant.

Image result for images film welcome to new york

Ferrara’s story, however, is not a fictionalized account of the long legal process nor a biopic of Strauss-Kahn.  It is the tale of an unashamed philanderer who refuses to be put in the cage of conventional morality.  He is neither proud of nor guilty about his infidelities or sexual appetites.  It is who I am, he says, a self-described libertine whose supposed immorality is other people’s problem, not his.

The real-life Strauss-Kahn was no less defiant.  When he flippantly rejected charges of procuring, he said that he had no idea that the women at a party he attended were prostitutes.  “All women look the same without their clothes”, he said.  “I did no wrong”. The wife of the fictional Strauss-Kahn, played by Jacqueline Bisset, has stayed with her husband for twenty years less out of love than her desire to be First Lady of France.  Her fabulous wealth is not enough, and only the position of La Présidente will satisfy her ambition.  She knows her husband well, and has tolerated if not accepted his sexual profligacy because it is inconsequential and irrelevant given the intellectual brilliance and political savvy of the man.

At the same time Devereaux  – the Strauss-Kahn of the Ferrara film – knows that his wife will never leave him.   He, then, has it all.  He is wealthy and powerful on his own merits, is awarded even more wealth and status because of his wife’s family, and free to be as licentious and sexually active as he wishes.

The film ends as Devereaux and his wife are about to return to Paris.  He is alone in the apartment and is served coffee by an attractive maid to whom he makes advances.  Even as his political future and reputation are in disarray, and as his wife is now finally ready to divorce him, he still risks pursuing women.  He has not ‘learned his lesson’ because there is no lesson to learn.  He has beaten the rape case because of his powerful New York attorneys, the likelihood that his wife paid off the prosecution, and because of his international reputation.

Sexual libertinage, promiscuity, or addiction – whatever the press might call it – in his eyes is morally neutral.  Prostitution has always been tolerated if not legal in France, and women are as much commodities as those he has always traded on world markets.   The fact that his sex drive is more insatiable than others is not the point.

The final shot of the film shows Devereaux staring blankly at the camera, perhaps the only suggestion the director makes that despite his arrogance, defiance, and ability to survive and profit, Devereaux is chastened, vulnerable, and aware. 

This is not believable.  The  penultimate scene – that of Devereaux propositioning the maid – is the moral closure of the film.  He is virile, irrepressible, contemptuous of the bourgeoisie and its myopic values, and subversive of them.  He is reminiscent of Fyodor Karamazov, the father of the brothers of Dostoevsky’s novel, who is as sexually driven, condescending, and irreverent.  Both men are attractive in their will, defiance of the meek, timid, and sexually repressed.

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Ferrara’s film is particularly interesting because it was produced in our very politically correct time and dealt with subjects– accusations of rape, infidelity, and sexual ambition -  which are reported in only predictably correct ways.  Devereaux’ legal proceedings and acquittal do not interest Ferrara.  The film is as ambiguous on this score as the claims and defense of the case on which it was based.  Ferrara is only interested in showing an absolutely confident, determined, willful, unapologetic, and unrepentant man in the face of sanctimonious social censure.

The film is especially important because it is an indictment of today’s increasingly Puritanical American culture.   Sex in the name of civil protections and women’s rights has been legalized, sanitized, and nearly considered off-limits unless it is between two consenting, married adults.   Sex for Devereaux was necessary and absolute.  As in the case of most older men, sex with younger women is their only hope of retaining the potency and vitality of their youth.  Although sexual conquest is enough for most men, Devereaux could not stop there.   It was the sex act in all its twisted diversity that mattered.  And what was wrong with that?

Infidelity, always the object of derision in America, is only a sidelight in Ferrara’s film.   It is of absolutely no consequence in the arranged marriage of the Devereaux and no consequence at all within the context of individual will.  Nietzsche is famous for his Superman; but he was right in his statement that the only validation of the individual in a meaningless world is the expression of his will.   Devereaux is a perfect Nietzschean Superman.  Men always cheat on their wives because sexuality is the defining characteristic of human nature; and lovers, the variety of sexual experience, the roll call of conquests, and the loosening of the traces, make us – especially men - what we are.

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Fyodor Karamazov is often dismissed by modern critics as an unduly authoritarian father, for his emotional dismissiveness of them, and for his all-consuming selfish desires.  Yet Fyodor is the most attractive character of all the Karamazovs.  He wants no part of Alyosha’s religiosity or of Ivan’s academic atheism.  Dmitri is weak, susceptible, and morally suspect.  Only Fyodor – like Nietzsche’s Superman and Ferrara’s Devereaux – follows his own instincts as an expression of will, a scorn for bourgeois society, and an understanding that dismissiveness and pleasure are all that count in a world that amounts to very little.

Sharp edges, moral imperfections, and stubborn sexuality are all universally condemned in American progressives’ desire to reform the world.   Great statesmen– FDR, LBJ, MLK, Thomas Jefferson, and many others – are now judged more for their personal rectitude than their political leadership.  Jefferson’s sex life with slaves; Martin Luther King’s Lothario lifestyle, Roosevelt’s longtime mistress; Clinton’s dalliance with an intern are now judged alongside of war and peace, social reform, justice, and equality.

Of course ambitious and intelligent men will do just about anything to get what they want; and since power breeds even more  marital and social infidelity, no one should be surprised at their stretching the truth, evasion of accountability, and amoral pursuit of their goals.

Our lenses have become distorted by sanctimony and idealism.  The world is no different than it was in the days of empire and long before.  Men and women are just as territorial, protective, violent, and ambitious as in the days of Henry VI or Elizabeth I.  Humanity is not progressing, but acting as it always has. Welcome to New York is a film for our times.

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