The Queen of Versailles
Most of us would admit to being intrigued by the very rich – even if our fascination is a guilty one. It’s a matter of projection, I suppose: while gawping at how they spend all that money, we wonder if or how we’d do things differently.
Film-maker Lauren Greenfield taps in to our instincts effectively in The Queen of Versailles, a riveting documentary that focuses on a married couple of extraordinary wealth: time-share mogul David Siegel, who is in his 70s, and his wife Jackie, a blonde, tanned ex-beauty queen who flaunts her impressive cleavage in tight clothes - and spends their money like there’s no tomorrow.
No-one thinks bigger than the Siegels, and when Greenfield and her cameras catch up with them in 2008, they’re hatching grandiose plans – to build the largest single-family home in America, with a floor plan loosely based on the palace of Versailles. It would cover 90,000 square feet, and comprise 15 bedrooms, 30 bathrooms, 11 kitchens a skating rink and a bowling alley.
The Siegels, who commission paintings of themselves dressed as European royals to adorn their walls, come across as vain, greedy and vulgar - none of which is inaccurate. We’re primed to sneer at their absurd excesses. But Greenfield pulls the rug from beneath the audience’s feet, by staying around them during a miserable time in their lives.
When the global recession hits late in 2008, David’s time-share business goes into meltdown, they run out of money and their plans to complete the half-finished ‘palace’ grind to a halt. Instead, they’re stuck in a mere mansion, a quarter of the size of Versailles, with their seven children, their pets and a drastically curtailed domestic staff. Considering their extraordinary wealth, it’s striking how quickly their living conditions become squalid.
And a remarkable thing happens: however much you may start out despising the Siegels and the shallow, selfish values they stand for, you find it hard not to feel twinges of sympathy for them. That’s the measure of Greenfield’s film – cool, observant and notably intelligent in its approach to subjects who wouldn’t look out of place on the most crass reality TV show.
Lawless is a thinly disguised gangster movie; it’s even set in 1931, during America’s ill-conceived Prohibition era. But its leading men don’t wear fedoras and sharp suits, or ride around Chicago in big ritzy cars with wide running boards: they live in the rural backwoods of Virginia, where they distil and sell illegal moonshine whiskey.
These three heroes, if that’s the word, are the real-life brothers Bondurant, who dominated the moonshine business in the state’s Franklin County, paying off local cops, staying ahead of federal law enforcers and confronting those who would challenge their business supremacy with extreme violence.
British actor Tom Hardy is the stand-out as their leader Forrest Bondurant, a seemingly indestructible bear of a man who communicates largely in grunts and keeps his brass knuckle dusters close at hand. Shia LaBeouf plays his ambitious, dapper brother Jack; Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasihowska are their respective girl-friends.
Guy Pearce has a tedious, over-the-top role as a dandyish law enforcer who turns out to be a psychopath, but for the most part Lawless is a whole lot of fun – providing bone-crunching violence doesn’t dampen your enthusiasm and you don’t expect a finger-wagging morality tale to spring from the brothers’ appalling behaviour.
Its Australian director John Hillcoat (who also wrote the script with singer-songwriter Nick Cave) has called Lawless “GoodFellas in the woods,” which isn’t a bad description. My guess is that men will like it more than women; no surprise, given the territory it inhabits.
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