THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES
Director: Lauren Greenfield
MPAA Rating: (for thematic elements and language)
Running Time: 1:40
Release Date: 7/6/12 (limited); 7/20/12 (wider); 8/3/12 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | August 2, 2012
The American Dream, one of the interview subjects of The Queen of Versailles says, is to rise above one's past and be better off than the previous generation. If that's the case, then at the start of the film Jackie Siegel is living out at least three generation's worth of American Dreams. Like a modern-day fairy tale, she has gone from a working class upbringing to becoming a beauty queen to being the future resident of the largest single-family home in the United States.
"Home" doesn't do the place justice; "mansion," in fact, is underselling it. Her future abode is a 90,000-square-foot American palace in Orlando, Florida—designed after Versailles, adorned in furniture and decorations in the Louis XIV style, and containing a grand ballroom, two tennis courts, and an ice rink. The ice rink could also be a roller rink, Jackie says on her tour of the half-completed space. Having a separate room for the roller rink would just be silly.
While we can scoff and sigh with disbelief (all the while considering whether we would want something that ostentatious and secretly envying the fortune that allows such a display), it's admittedly discomforting to watch Jackie and her husband David, an entrepreneur who founded and runs the largest timeshare company in the world (The logic of such of an idea escapes me, even with all the positive explanations that various people put forth over the course of the film), talk about this venture in light of the economic hardship that has struck the United States after the 2008 economic crisis.
It was a different time obviously, and the opening act of the film is a time capsule of that way of thinking. Anything is possible with "cheap money" from banks that are promoting all sorts of strange loans and mortgages that promise all of your exciting dreams can come true no matter the cost.
We know how that turned out. In a fine example of reaping what one sows (David says he "single-handedly" won George W. Bush the election in Florida through means that might not have been entirely legal; hopefully, that's another story for a different day), the market crashes, and those banks that were so happy to help David's company build its empire of timeshare properties—including one in Las Vegas that Donald Trump complains is a bit of an eyesore for his view of the skyline—suddenly come calling for the Siegels to pay (Complicating matters is that all pretty much all of his assets are in his business). They don't want his money; they want his property. David's stubborn enough to plan on bankrupting his building in Vegas before letting the bank take it.
Jackie, meanwhile, has to get used to living on a budget. It doesn't turn out well. Here's a woman who rides in a speedboat while wearing a fur coat and takes a limousine to a local fast food restaurant. She begins shopping at a discount department store but winds up with multiple shopping carts full of toys. She has eight children living under her roof (seven of her own and one taken in from her sibling), and she buys numerous quantities of the same board game, unaware that they probably don't need their own copy. Included in her purchases is a bike that just gets placed in a stack of bikes in the garage. "That's just wrong," one of their nannies says.
Jackie's behavior isn't tough to crack. She grew up without much of anything, and now, given the opportunity to have everything, she hasn't learned that she doesn't necessarily need everything. Everyone is eccentric; Jackie merely has the disposable income to bring out those eccentricities on a grand scale.
The film is full of sometimes surreal moments of the family—forced to reevaluate their lifestyle because of the circumstances—coming to grips with just how much they have and have taken for granted. After letting go much of the house staff (not to mention the thousands of employees of David's company who are laid off), dog feces begin to collect on the floor. A pet lizard dies either of starvation or dehydration ("No one would drive me to the pet store," the niece says), and one of the kids walks into the room to announce, "I didn't even know we had a lizard." There's also something absurdly common about David scolding his wife and children for leaving lights on in any of the nearly 30 rooms in his current home when they are unoccupied.
It would be easy to look at this with smug satisfaction, but director Lauren Greenfield is impassive. We grow to sympathize with them; they're struggling—admittedly and assuredly not as much as the large majority of people affected by the economic downturn. They seem to have an understanding of that, too, such as when Jackie sends money to a high school friend she had not seen in years in the hopes of helping the friend save her house.
It would also be too easy to focus far too much on what the subjects of The Queen of Versailles represent instead of who they are. The film achieves a balance of ensuring we thoughtfully consider both.
Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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