Saturday, 21 April 2012

THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Toronto Hot Docs 2012 - Must-See #6

The Queen of Versailles (2012) dir. Lauren Greenfield ***1/2

Reviewed By Greg Klymkiw

Jackie's a curvy blonde, with pouty lips, forever-and-a-day legs and Grand Canyon cleavage. In another age, this dazzling Miss Florida 1993 beauty queen would have fit most comfortably on the silver screen, clutching the arms of such celebrated fictional lugs as Moose Malloy, Johnny Prince or Fredo Corleone. In today's world, and in real life, she's the well-preserved 40-something trophy wife of America's timeshare Real Estate Mogul David Siegel.

If I didn't know otherwise, I might have thought that Lauren Greenfield's feature documentary The Queen of Versailles was, in fact, an intensely satirical mockumentary on consumer culture in America.

When we first meet the Siegel family in their gaudily ornate 26,000-square-foot Florida mansion, we're initially shocked at the tacky opulence of this cavernous love den that houses the 74-year-old self-made multi-billionaire Siegel and the insanely voluptuous woman who bore him seven children. We alternate between being agog and slapping our knees in raucous laughter.

As the film progresses, however, we get to like these people and their over-the-top lifestyle, especially when we're delivered considerable insight and background into their humble beginnings - their respective individual drive to achieve success. They've not been born with silver spoons hanging out of their mouths - they've both had to work for their right to accumulate. Jackie, in fact, put herself through university and earned an engineering degree before she began a modelling career. If they want to spoil themselves and their progeny rotten - all the power to them.

That said, there's something vaguely offensive and chilling when we discover that the nanny, who loves the Siegel children dearly, has not been home to the Philippines to see her own kids in years. Given her slavish devotion to this family, I kept wondering why the Siegel family, especially when things were going well, didn't think to cough up a drop in the bucket and bring her family over.

These occasional dark thoughts inspired by the film keep us anchored from completely rooting for these consumerist lovebirds.

And make no mistake - Jackie and David are clearly in love. It's especially poignant how the film captures them alone and together so intimately that we see how this is more than a marriage of convenience. She's no traditional goldigger and he's no wily, old dog looking for a trophy.

In spite of David's wealth when Jackie met him, it was a long and traditional romantic courtship and I have to admit there's something genuinely sweet about getting these details. And once they do get married, the movie verges on fairytale as we see them in photos and archival footage cavorting with presidents and movie stars.

We're also delivered the ins-and-outs of David's business empire. He's strictly independent and is the largest private owner of timesharing resorts in the world. Witnessing such dynamic entrepreneurship is, frankly, cooler than cool.

When things turn especially surreal is when we're introduced to the most insane aspect of this couple's American Dream. Inspired by the Palace of Versailles, the Siegels build the largest home in America.

It's 90,000 square feet and has 30 toilets.

'Nuff said.

Thankfully for director Greenfield, the financial crisis of 2008 hit everyone - including the Siegel empire. If it hadn't, the movie would definitely had worked as a curiosity piece, but when we start following this family as they are forced into a major austerity program, this truly becomes the stuff of great drama. The fairytale marriage starts to strain at the seams, the unfinished Versailles must be put up for sale and the banks begin to put the squeeze on David.

Once most of the servants are dismissed from the 26,000 square feet the Siegel family still lives in, the house turns into a cross between Jed Clampett's Beverly Hills mansion (transplanted back to the swamp in the Ozarks) and the bourgeois nightmare of The Exterminating Angel. The Queen of Versailles definitely shapes itself into some ultra-Bunuelian phantasm with dollops of Shakespearean tragedy.

This once spotless (albeit gaudy) mansion is now just plain gaudy and has so much filth piling up that I don't even want to imagine how this place started to reek like a cesspool. I believe this movie features more scenes involving dogs crapping and urinating indoors (as well as neglected pets just dying outright) than has ever or will ever exist.

Ditto for shots of doggie fecal matter lying about.

This is America!

Piles of dog shit soiling the crumbling remains of a once proud family of consumerist gluttons yields a movie that could easily swipe the tagline from Robert Altman's Nashville:

"The damnedest thing you ever saw!"

"The Queen of Versailles" is playing Wed, May 2 7:00 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1, Thu, May 3 9:15 PM at the Isabel Bader Theatre, Fri, May 4 8:45 PM at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema during Toronto's 2012 Edition of the Hot Docs Film Festival. To order tickets, visit the Hot Docs website HERE.