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Queen of Versailles, The
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by Jay Seaver

"The recession hits everybody... differently."
4 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2012: Times are tough for everybody, although "tough" can be a relative concept. The further you get from the bottom, not only does it get further from what many would consider really difficult, but harder to sympathize, at least in the abstract. "The Queen of Versailles" aims to make the abstract specific, and if not sympathetic, at least interesting.

Jackie and David Siegel can be seen as the epitome of conspicuous, wasteful consumption. As the film opens, Jackie is 43 and David is 72, with seven kids of their own and one niece of Jackie's that has come to live with them. David is a billionaire, having built a time-share empire from the ground up, and while they currently live in a twenty-six thousand square foot home, they are building a much larger Versailles-style mansion - at ninety thousand square feet, it would be the largest single-family home ever built in America. At least, they are until the financial crisis, when people stop spending on things like timeshares just as David is trying to open a massive new property in Las Vegas.

The Siegels live large as the movie begins, arguably grotesquely so. The parties with every entry in the current Miss America pageant are kind of amusingly grandiose at times, sure, but it's the ingrained excess in other places that may make the audience uneasy. It's not enough to have one badly-trained, yappy little dog, for instance; Jackie has many and has had many more. A comment she makes about nannies making it easier to have kids kicks that feeling up to the next level. The palace that they intend to build is the most obvious example, but in some ways, as much as it's gaudy, it's just building a nice house with all the amenities they can afford; it's amplified, but not different, compared to a random audience member's desires and experiences.

"Amplified but not different" tends to be the film's strength, especially once the financial downturn hits in earnest. It's funny to see Jackie pull into a McDonald's in a limo, or not get that her rental car does not include a driver, but if that were all director Lauren Greenfield had, she'd almost be better off seeing if she could squeeze a dozen half-hour episodes out of her footage to sell as an unscripted cable television series. Sometimes, though, we see the recession's effects on a family showed down enough that it's possible to see how the combination of what David calls "cheap money" and an imbalance between spending and saving can wreck things.

Plus, Jackie and David are interesting enough as individuals for the potential "rags-to-riches-to-rags" story that emerges to be worth following. A combination of stubbornness and weariness emerges from David as time goes on, not always in a way that's appealing. Jackie, meanwhile, becomes a more curious figure the as we learn about her. She's got a good heart and bits of her much-less-fortunate past often shine through, but somewhere along the way she seemed to become an ornament with little practical knowledge at all. Toward the end, both seem to be implicitly questioning the choices that got them where they are individually and as a couple.

Greenfield does a nice job of presenting the Siegels and the people around them sympathetically but also critically. Either through building a rapport or skilled editing, she's able to capture what feels like a particular sort of honesty, with her subjects aware of the camera but not really playing to it. This is the case both when "observing" and interviewing, which is kind of impressive, if at times a little cool. The again, what is perhaps the most memorable moment comes when interviewing Jackie toward the end, as a single sentence makes the movie much more emotional and personal while demonstrating that, remarkably, it is possible to break the fourth wall further even when someone is already talking to the camera.

Audience may still find themselves feeling a little schadenfreude as things go south, despite Greenfield's efforts in the other direction. Sometimes the absurdity of this group is allowed to overshadow their humanity - perhaps a little too often - but the movie's good enough not to get stuck in between.

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originally posted: 05/17/12 09:59:36
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2012 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Independent Film Festival Boston 2012 For more in the Independent Film Festival Boston 2012 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 14th Annual Sarasota Film Festival For more in the 14th Annual Sarasota Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Nantucket Film Festival For more in the 2012 Nantucket Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Seattle International Film Festival For more in the 2012 Seattle International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Los Angeles Film Festival For more in the 2012 Los Angeles Film Festival series, click here.

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  20-Jul-2012 (PG)
  DVD: 13-Nov-2012


  DVD: 13-Nov-2012

Directed by
  Lauren Greenfield

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