The new documentary, The Queen of Versailles, has been called "...a rather brilliant metaphor for the runaway American dream," by Claudia Puig of USA Today. I love that quote because it (and the movie) call into question that dream, and what it means - and what it takes - to achieve it.
The film combines a healthy serving of reality TV, plenty of traditional documentary-style footage and interviews that are liberally sprinkled with incredible still photography (the Director of the film was a photographer first), which makes for a pretty captivating hour and a half in the visual department alone. But it's much more than just well-shot. It's a meditation on consumerism, consumption, avarice, family, American business, and more.
The film's site describes itself well: "With the epic dimensions of a Shakespearean tragedy, The Queen of Versailles follows billionaires Jackie and David’s rags-to-riches story to uncover the innate virtues and flaws of the American dream. We open on the triumphant construction of the biggest house in America, a sprawling, 90,000-square-foot mansion inspired by Versailles. Since a booming time-share business built on the real-estate bubble is financing it, the economic crisis brings progress to a halt and seals the fate of its owners. We witness the impact of this turn of fortune over the next two years in a riveting film fraught with delusion, denial, and self-effacing humor."
Importantly, the main characters - the "King" and "Queen" of the movie's title (David and Jackie Siegel, respectively), are, surprisingly likeable folks. Based on the trailer (see above) and the reviews I had read about the couple, I thought I would find them reprehensible, but at the end of the day, though they have made some questionable decisions, I found myself rooting for them (especially Jackie, a woman smart enough to get into college for engineering, and beautiful enough to win numerous beauty contests). Maybe it's because both David and Jackie are from (extremely) humble backgrounds, or maybe it's because they both seem utterly confused about how they even ended up building the largest house in America, or maybe it's because they both come across as real people you could see yourself having dinner with, but whatever it is, it makes it hard to judge their choices harshly.
Watching the overwhelming and constant consumerism Jackie engages in reminded me of my own conflicted ideas about stuff (something I have been writing about on MNN lately); in several parts of the movie, you definitely get the feeling that there's some kind of high-level hoarding going on, and at points the sheer quanitity of stuff —and people—stuffed into David and Jackie's house feels claustrophobic.
It struck me that like food, acquiring and organizing our stuff can become an addiction. Not just the shopping part, which is a known, quantified issue. But all the rest of it too; finding a place for the new stuff, not being able to let go of the old stuff, replacing things that don't need to be, or buying things in duplicate can be a comfort, proof that you are alive. Even in the face of financial failure, the Queen of Versailles (in the movies and in French history), kept partying and buying and living like nothing had changed. And whether it's the French Revolution or the 2008 financial crash, times do change, and we must adapt.
The Queen of Versailles got such a high audience rating from the site Rotten Tomatoes that it earned the hard-to-come-by "Fresh Tomato" seal, and the critics have loved it equally, from magazine and newspaper critics to the Sundance Film Festival awarding it a "Best Director" award for 2012. Have you seen it? What did you think?