Queen of Versailles, The (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★
In 2008, when David Siegel is asked why he and his wife decided to build the largest home in America, the CEO of Westgate Resorts simply says, “Because I can” with such a mix of honest arrogance and yet it becomes clear that Siegel has reason to be proud of his successes because he has built his success from the ground up. When the financial crisis hit on September 2008, however, the construction of their dream home, inspired by the Palace of Versailles, comes to a sudden halt. Siegel and his family has no choice but to sell their priceless possessions, from private planes to antiques, to cover their losses. Even then Siegel still has to come up with over two hundred million dollars to pay the banks to prevent them from taking over the PH Towers Westgate in Las Vegas.
The subjects of “The Queen of Versailles” are easy to judge because they are so filthy rich that it’s impossible not to wonder what they plan to do with all that money, but director Lauren Greenfield maintains control over her project by simply showing us what’s going on and allowing us to draw our own conclusions about David and Jackie Siegel as human beings. It could have been a documentary rife with exploitative elements, a “how the mighty have fallen!” theme in its center, but instead opts for a more thoughtful approach.
To my surprise, Mrs. Siegel is very likable. One would think that just because she has everything she wants and needs, she would be a vile blonde imbecile who considers being kind to others as a chore. The material quickly tracks her humble background as a country girl up until her name is worth billions, culminating to a visit to her hometown with her young children after the financial collapse. Since we learn about where she comes from and her level of resilience, we understand how she can remain strong despite almost losing everything. Still, there are some moments during her interviews where most of us can tell that she is struggling to hold onto her emotions.
The word “overconsumption” is not once mentioned but its idea is always present. We are given a tour around the unfinished mansion with its two tennis courts, indoor ice skating rink, and a massive staircase usually recognized in period movies that tell stories of high class societies. We look around at the Siegel’s “smaller” home, still gargantuan, full of expensive china and other priceless collectibles, toys and gadgets abound that, if donated, can make a village full of children happy, and so many dogs roaming around that you’d think the family had adopted a pound. We also get to watch Jackie shop at Walmart and buying at least four cartful of toys, despite supposedly being on a budget, for her kids’ Christmas presents. Do they really need five sets of the same board game?
A case can be made concerning a psychological connection between David and Jackie’s constant need to have more and the point in their lives, specifically their youth, when they didn’t have much. Overconsumption and overcompensation have become synonymous.
“The Queen of Versailles,” for all its images of excess and extravagance, makes me thankful and humbled for what I have. Although some reviewers claimed that we are bound to feel a certain level of schadenfreude as the film unfolds, I can say with complete honesty that I did not feel that way. I didn’t pity them; I empathized with them. I may not agree with the way the Siegels live their lives, but I rooted for them to recover. I liked Jackie even though sometimes she lacks a hint of common sense. Most importantly, I felt concern for the children. One of them is shown to have grown a habit in sleeping on one of the nanny’s beds. It may suggest that the children don’t always receive or feel the love from their parents on a basic level which supports that there are things that money can never buy.
★★ / ★★★★
Half-brothers Clay (Dennis Haysbert) and Vincent (Michael Harris) met for the first time. Everyone in the film, including the two, thought they looked alike. However, the audience knew better because they were obviously nothing alike in terms of physicality: Clay was an African-American who looked like a linebacker and Vincent was a Caucasian who looked frail but with a mind full of devious intentions. Vincent wanted to get away with murder so he tried to fake his death by using Clay’s body in a car explosion. However, Clay lived without any memory of who he was. It was up to Dr. Descartes (Mel Harris) to reconstruct Clay’s face and Dr. Shinoda (Sab Shimono) to reconstruct Clay’s memories. Written and directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, “Suture” had a fascinating, almost Hitchcock-ian premise but it ultimately failed to deliver because Clay’s journey to eventually realizing what happened to him lacked tension. Instead of keeping his relationship with Dr. Descartes strictly professional, they got involved in a romantic relationship. In a way, that romance was a distraction instead of really exploring interesting questions involving living a life that was not meant to be. As a person of science, I also had questions about Dr. Shinoda’s techniques in the attempt to recover Clay’s memory. I’m not quite sure if the film was aiming for accuracy but I believe Freudian methods are far from the most effective ways in treating amnesia (at least from what I’ve been taught). The movie only regained its footing near end when Vincent finally decided to finish off what he had started. It was a nailbiting scene because the characters moved ever so slowly and so quietly to the point where the audiences were keen on potential mistakes that could cost a character his life. I loved that the movie was gorgeously shot in black and white but at the same time it was disappointing because the filmmakers did not play with shadows. It would have been a perfect because the characters, especially Vincent, had something to hide and he was often in the dark in terms of what he was thinking and his true motivations. Furthermore, it would have been more interesting if Vincent had become a more sympathetic figure over time instead of remaining to be a one-dimensional cold-blooded killer. The same goes for Clay: it would have been much more fun to watch the film if his desperation had led him to make decisions that we did not necessarily agree with. In the end, I wanted to see the malleability, fluidity and complexity of identity. Instead of taking a step beyond the switching identity storyline, it stayed within the conventions and it failed to leave a lasting memory.
★★ / ★★★★
A couple played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Lynn Collins decided to flip a coin because they couldn’t make up their mind regarding how to spend their Fourth of July holiday. Once the coin was flipped, we were immediately taken on two paths: the couple spending their time with the girlfriend’s family (the talented Olivia Thirlby among them) and the couple finding a cell phone in a taxi which criminals desperately wanted in their hands. I really liked the concept of the movie but it just didn’t move me in any way because it was very uneven. I understood that a big part of the picture was its use of contrast but I felt like it spent more time developing the thriller aspect (the cell phone) instead of balancing it with drama (the family). They could have done so much with the family such as expanding the tension between the boyfriend and the girlfriend’s mother or perhaps going deeper into the uncle’s illness. Instead, the movie focused on the characters running all over New York City; while initially it was exciting because I was curious about why certain people wanted the cell phone so badly, over time the tension caught a bad case of diminishing returns. I just grew tired of the couple making one bad decision after another. I was even surprised that they managed to survive for so long. I found it difficult to believe that the couple trying to survive was the same as the two who were having dinner with nice and welcoming people. While the events were very different from one another, it would have been nice if we saw certain characteristics of the lead characters that crossed boundaries set by the cinematic style. There was also a disconnect between the level of acting between Gordon-Levitt and Collins. When the former tried to achieve depth, the latter almost always decided to go for the obvious, not just in the way she said the lines but the body language lacked subtlety. I wished that Thirlby was the lead female instead because, from what I’ve seen from her other films, she can achieve subtlety without sacrificing charisma. Written and directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, I saw potential in “Uncertainty” but it took far too many missteps and I lost interest in it over time. While the use of contrast was nice, it didn’t quite break out from the usual patterns to go for that element of surprise. It needed more time to ponder over why one small decision could lead to big (and sometimes unfortunate) events in our lives. I guess I needed the movie to actively connect with its audiences instead of just being stuck in its own universe. With such an interesting premise, I thought it would be more versatile in terms of its tone (especially since McGehee and Siegel both directed one of my favorite films “The Deep End”–the masterful balance of thriller and drama) and it wouldn’t be afraid to take risks time and time again. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.