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Art imitates your life? Tough luck. It takes an outsider to make sense of it

Dominique Strauss-Kahn really does not like Welcome to New York, the new film about a priapic French financier who is ruled by his lusts and ruined by his assault on a hotel maid. I can't imagine why.

Okay, yes, I can: Although Abel Ferrara's film, which debuted in Cannes this week, carries a "fictional" disclaimer, it hews rather closely to the events of Mr. Strauss-Kahn's life. What might have set him off first? The sight of Gérard Depardieu's majestic, lunar bottom chasing a variety of women around a variety of hotel rooms? Or that Mr. Depardieu – playing a French presidential wannabe named Devereaux – tells a psychiatrist, "I don't have no feeling. I don't give a [bleep] about the people"? Is it that the character has abysmal grammar? Or is it that there's no ambiguity over Devereaux's rape of a chamber maid?

I'd go with the last one. You will recall that Mr. Strauss-Kahn was head of the International Monetary Fund and a leading candidate for the French presidency in 2011 when he was accused of sexually assaulting a hotel worker in New York. The charges were later dropped and an out-of-court settlement was reached with the woman.

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It's entirely understandable that Mr. Strauss-Kahn, a man used to controlling economies and the particulars of his own life, might not like to see his biographical clay in the wild hands of Mr. Ferrara and Mr. Depardieu. But, as they say on the streets of New York, and probably more elegantly in the 7th arrondissement: Tough luck, buddy. This is the way of the modern world.

I haven't seen Welcome to New York, which is currently available on French pay television, but it will go to the top of my Netflix list when it's released. I'd watch Mr. Depardieu do anything, including read a phone book or pee in a bottle, although apparently you have to be a passenger on an international flight to witness that.

It will probably be cold comfort to Mr. Strauss-Kahn, but he joins an august line of public figures who have watched with horror, and in some cases successfully prevented, biographical films of their lives being made. Mark Zuckerberg, Julian Assange, George W. Bush – all have seen their still-beating hearts dissected for a public that is increasingly in love with the real-life story of the great man.

Or, for that matter, the great woman. By this time, we should be watching a Hillary Clinton miniseries starring Diane Lane, an entertainment I certainly would have stayed home to watch. Alas, it never came to pass: The NBC miniseries was cancelled in its infancy "after intense pressure from friends and supporters," the website Politico reported last year. (In fairness, the Republicans weren't too happy with the idea, either.) If you are powerful enough, the biopic stops here.

There are competing interests at work. The public is fascinated with the hidden lives of public figures, who are in turn hell-bent on controlling what gets made public. They may dole out alms to their followers in tweets and Instagram pictures, but make no mistake: They control the message, and the image.

You may recall that posh-accented bunfight that erupted over last year's biopic of Mr. Assange, the WikiLeaks founder and current exile from Swedish justice. Mr. Assange attempted to convince Benedict Cumberbatch not to play him in the film The Fifth Estate – unsuccessfully, it turned out, which just goes to show you should never wage war from the top floor of the Ecuadorean embassy. In the end, Mr. Assange moaned that the film got everything wrong, that it was a "geriatric snoozefest."

This is the most telling argument that angry subjects of biopics use: The film is wrong, misguided, profoundly misunderstanding the essence of the man (or woman). Mr. Zuckerberg claimed the most accurate thing about The Social Network was his wardrobe of hoodies: "There's all this stuff that they got wrong, and a bunch of random details that they got right."

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But isn't every person a mystery to themselves? Aren't we all blind to our faults? Everyone feels themselves to be fundamentally misunderstood, or there would be no small-claims court. It takes the calm, measuring eye of an outsider – a screenwriter, let's say – to make sense of a life, which is of course just part of a network of other lives.

Mr. Ferrara told Variety magazine that he'd made a deliberate decision not to put mirrors in Welcome to New York: "There is no reflection for these guys, because they're not looking at themselves." Mr. Strauss-Kahn could have chosen to take offence quietly, as Mr. Zuckerberg did, or pretended that he didn't see himself in the monster at all, which would have been his best defence. Quoi, moi? Instead, he's gone on the offensive, ordering his lawyer to sue for defamation.

His lawyer, Jean Veil, called the film "a piece of [the matter often found on Parisian sidewalks, which has ruined many a Chanel shoe]." Mr. Strauss-Kahn was said to be "heartbroken" by the film – but maybe it wasn't sorrow so much as shock at an unfamiliar reflection.

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