My definition of a good movie is – do I wake up thinking about it the next morning? According to this criterion, Queen of Versailles is one of the best movies ever made because I can’t get it out of my mind.
Jackie Siegel is a very nice woman. True, she is a leggy blonde of questionable blondness, the mother of seven children who admits its fun to have them as long as there are nannies. True, she wants to trade up her 26,000 square foot house on its own gated island in Orlando for a 90,000 square foot version of Versailles complete with spa, bowling alley, and whatever whim pops into her head.
David Siegel is a very nice man. True, he is an aging entrepreneur of questionable ethics who claims to be the hand behind George W. Bush’s 2000 victory in Florida. True, his cultural compass points in a retro direction; the highlight of his year is having all 50 Miss America contestants grace the main stair of his mansion while he flirts with the current title holder in front of his wife.
When we meet this pair and their hoard of children, dozens of dogs and nineteen personal staff, it is 2007 and George’s time share condo empire is expanding faster than Rocky Balboa’s chest sprinting up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. We are dumbstruck by their house, their cars, their two story closets; only to learn that they are moving up when we visit Versailles with its three story stained glass dome, twin grand stairs, five million dollars of marble floor and a warehouse where Jackie hoards every Louse XIV artifact she can get here hands on before move-in day. Money is so abundant it is irrelevant in their frantic accumulation of stuff.
2008 rolls around, banks teeter, the Feds bail them out, but the banks ratchet credit down, the time share business tanks and with it go Jackie and David. They lay off 7,000 employees. Jackie opens a personal goodwill store where former employees can buy her excess stock at deep discounts. She downsizes. Instead of shopping the antique markets of Europe she wheels through Wal-Mart, but she still has two nannies in tow to navigate her five shopping carts. When Jackie presents her son a new bicycle; he shrugs and tosses it on the pile of other new, untouched, bicycles. These people have been gilded so long, nothing is precious.
Everything about this couple should be despicable, yet they are also rich in redemptive qualities. Jackie is an ordinary girl from Binghamton, NY, a go getter with an engineering degree who escaped an IBM cubicle job when she realized it deadened her, moved to New York City and redirected her energy to becoming a model, a beauty queen and the wife of a tycoon. We believe she loves this man thirty years her senior, she demonstrates it in every frame of the film. She is eternally cheerful, patient with children, and loving towards her husband even as the financial crisis makes him ever more despondent.
Toward the end of the film, when the largest time share in Las Vegas has gone belly up, Versailles is for sale, but they still have their private island mansion, David refers to his wife as another child. We can’t help thinking his biggest mistake is not financial miscalculation so much as a personal one; Jackie is more than a pretty woman with an amazing chest, she is his greatest ally and should be his closet confidante. But he has no concept how to include this woman into his grinding business life. He flails alone.
For her part, Jackie exits the movie outside her mansion, reiterating her faith in her husband, and vowing to stay together no matter that the future might bring. “We could live in a $300,000 four bedroom house; we could get bunk beds.” Are we supposed to laugh at the prospect of this family moving into a house no bigger than her current closet, or are we supposed to laugh because the minimum life she can envision is still far beyond what most Americans can afford?
Of course in the end no one is laughing. The Queen of Versailles is a tragedy, as much as tragedy as the film’s namesake. Doesn’t Jackie know that Marie Antoinette’s excess ended her up at the guillotine?
The last few years have brought a revisionist perspective for the original Queen of Versailles. Sophia Coppola made a redemptive biopic of the French Queen; the ART staged a play that portrays Marie as a victim. Jackie and David Siegel are clueless, narcissistic people who live a powerful yet shallow dream, and they demonstrate in this film how unsatisfying the pursuit of material goods can be. Their self-absorbed, unsustainable way of life is disgusting. After spending an evening with them I feel sorry for them. But I do not dislike them. I believe they are victims of their culture exactly as Marie Antoinette was a victim of hers; blinded by the delusion that consumption conveys meaning. Marie had her head cut off, while the Siegels survive, for now. In 2013 they still live on their island, they never sold Versailles, they are back at building it once again. Even in the wake of the financial crisis, they reflect so much of America; still pursuing an easy, corrupt dream rather than doing the hard work of imagining a more satisfying one.
Jackie and David Siegel