Sunday, December 23, 2012

Film of the Year: The Queen of Versailles

The Siegels, David and Jessica

It was all supposed to be completely different, an insight in to trashy conspicuous consumption. The year was 2007 and it seemed we all had money, buying cars and second homes on almost limitless credit. Economists called it the Great Moderation as interests rates stayed low and banks lent money to everyone. But there was nothing moderate about how some of the wealthy blew their cash and this was to be story about one family, a billionaire David Siegel, his wife Jackie, their kids and their plans to build the largest private residence in the United States. It would be called Versailles, inspired by the great palace of Louis IV but this was to be no modern replica. At 90,000sq ft, it would be a grotesque monster, a temple of questionable taste and bling, smothered in gold paint, tacky chandeliers and marble, the latter totalling $5 million alone. We were to be regalled, horrified and have our suspicions confirmed that some people have more money than taste.

Then in 2008 for most of us, the world went belly-up and even some of the super wealthy lost everything as lifestyles, built on shoddy foundations of loose money came crashing down. The Siegels, whose fortune was built on the somewhat dodgy business of timeshares saw their fortune virtually depleted by over-spending on a product people no longer had the money for. Drowning in debts, it became a contemporary story many of us today suffer of having to cutback on expenses and the possible loss of the roof over our heads. Versailles would become locked in by banks, left to stand an empty shell, a sad, empty shell.

We were supposed to hate the Siegels, like we take pleasure in reviling reality TV show stars. The larger than life Jackie (in more ways than one after obvious plastic surgery) would be the obvious victim of scorn with her trashy perma-blonde hair and trips to McDonalds drive-tru’s in her limo. Yet somehow The Queen of Versailles became a tragicomedy, almost heartfelt as the Siegels coped with losing virtually all their nannies for their army of children and pets. Soon pet lizards were dying from neglect, forgotten for days by a troup of children used to having everything done for them. Having taken private jets for years, their is excitement and bemusement at flying coach on a normal flight to visit family. At a Hertz stand in the airport Jackie asks “where is the driver?”, much to the shock of the Man behind the counter.

Jessica outside the unfinished Versailles
It is not just the story of a rich person over-leveraging, we hear of their driver owning nineteen homes and faced with banrupcy. As Jackie returns to her hometown to visit a friend she hasn’t seen in nearly twenty years, she is struck by the fact her friend is about to have her home foreclosed for a menial amount of money. She privately makes a cheque to the bank to help her old friend keep her house while she herself could lose hers.

The star of the film is most certainly Jackie with the looming, ghostly edifice of Versailles lurking behind. For a person who can so easily be caricatured, we find a woman who actually really loves her husband thirty years her senior, who cares for her family and even though threatened with losing everything, this apparently intelligent woman with an engineering degree just keeps on smiling, musing of the benefits of a smaller home and more normal lifestyle, one she was born in to. It is with this gusty, friendly aspect to her that we learn to love her.

Even though we are witnessing here in the Western World the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, there are strangely very few films, fictional or otherwise that relate to it. There have been some that tackle the issue of banking and its part in creating the recession. Unlike films from the 1930’s there are not many films that consider the hardship people are under these days. Maybe we are a lot more insulated by better welfare and anaesthetized by distractions such as Facebook and X Factor. The sight of economic hardship such as hungry masses queing up for soup is not as prevalent a sight as it was eighty years ago bar say the tragedy unfolding in Greece. While many of us live through financially existential threat, The Queen of Versailles is an entertaining and at times heartfelt story of our time. For that reason I have voted it my best film of 2012. 

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