The documentary The Queen of Versailles (2012) is the kind of film that you start watching assuming it is just going to make you mad as hell. Tis after all a film about a family who are attempting to build the largest house in the USA, not a bunch of people many (or at least me) are likely to warm too or feel too much sympathy for when their dreams go awry. What is delivered however is a little more complex.
Don’t worry, you will feel angry, but you will also feel a bunch of other things as well. The film starts out by recounting the fairytale romance of Jackie and David Siegel. You know that age-old fairytale, the one where the woman is not particularly taken with the man, but eventually falls in love with him simply because he is so infatuated with her. The one where our dashing prince complains that “what she lacks in housekeeping skills, she makes up for in other ways.” I’ll give away how you end up feeling about the characters. He is an absolute, irredeemable jackass. Whilst Jackie is an altogether more sympathetic, complex and ‘real’ person.
The film chronicles their attempts to build their dream home, one that is 90,000 square feet and features amongst other things, a full sized baseball field. In case you had missed it, these are people with a total disconnect from reality. This is a world of inexplicable greed that sheds a light on the so called American Dream. It interrogates the fact that the American Dream is to rise above your ‘status’ and what that means in practice. Although somewhat strangely, or perhaps logically, the kids seem far more normal and world aware than the adults. One particularly insightful teen especially is able to cut through all the bullshit that clouds the world around her. Director Lauren Greenfield does some very clever things elsewhere in the film, showing the death of a pet lizard because no one could be fucked feeding it. This exemplifies the sheer neglect and superficiality that the family has come to impose on its life. As the financial crisis hits the Siegel’s business dealings, David’s true nature comes out, with his bitter tirades become more and more frequent. Jackie though, is able to see behind the surface level of their troubles, recognising the suffering that the situation must be causing others. Furthermore, she is happy that David has been humbled in this way, perhaps hoping that he can learn from it (doubtful). For all the exceedingly interesting subject matter though, The Queen of Versailles is nothing special in its presentation though which perhaps lessens the impact of the overall film.
The sleazebag David is a strange dude, with all the ego you would expect from a man of his wealth (a wealth unsurprisingly built on a foundation of totally unethical business practices). He enjoys gloating about how he personally got George W. Bush elected, whilst simultaneously expressing some remorse that he did so because of America’s involvement in Iraq. The film shows that David Siegel is not just an exceptionally greedy, sexist and smarmy man; he is in fact a sociopathic and abusive one. The power dynamic that he imposes on his wife is no different to that in other abusive relationships. Whilst all David cares about is money, all that Jackie truly cares about is being loved. She is an extremely astute person but the way she has been treated throughout her life has left her a person who is left struggling to interact with the world around her, try as she might.
The Queen of Versailles is exceptionally good at articulating the patriarchal bullshit and hyper-capitalism that plagues much of the world around us. The Siegels are perhaps an extreme example of this, but unfortunately are probably more representative of the world at large than we would like to admit.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs
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