The Queen of Versailles

David and Jackie Siegel at home on the throne in The Queen of Versailles

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

5 June

 

John Maynard Keynes born, 1883

On this day in the 1883, the economist John Maynard Keynes was born, in Cambridge, to an economist father and a social reformer mother. A mathematics prodigy as a child, he won a scholarship to Eton College, then went to King’s College, Cambridge, where he studied mathematics on a scholarship, graduating in 1904. After a short career as a clerk in the India Office, Keynes resigned and returned to Cambridge, where he started studying economics. By 1909 he had published his first article on economics. By 1911 he was editor of The Economic Journal. By 1913 he had published his first book, Indian Currency and Finance. During the First World War he worked at the Treasury, where his work in the field of currency acquisition and manipulation got him noticed. He was the Treasury’s representative at the Versailles peace conference at the end of the First World War. Keynes believed that penalising Germany too heavily for the war would lead to further conflict and that an economically strong Germany would be good for all parties. His views were ignored. He wrote The Economic Consequences of Peace as a result, which predicted disaster in Europe as a result of the peace of Versailles. Throughout the 1920s he argued against a currency fixed to gold (and lost) and for the depreciation of the currency to boost jobs at home and make goods more affordable overseas (and lost). His Treatise on Money followed in the 1920s, which pointed out that money, prices and jobs are all interlinked – if people aren’t spending, jobs will suffer. In the 1930s he wrote The Means to Prosperity, which concluded that governments had taken the wrong approach to the 1929 Crash and should have spent their way out of recession, an argument so counter-intuitive politicians (who in the main manage economies as if they were household budgets, ignoring the wealth generating side of the equation) still cannot grasp it. In 1936 he published his most famous work, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, on which his fame as an economist rests. It is the bible of interventionist economist. As the Second World War came to an end Keynes became inaugural chairman of the World Bank and helped establish the Bretton Woods system, which ensured financial stability in the post War world. He also helped negotiate the huge loans that the US made to the UK at the end of the War. He died in 1946, his ideas in the ascendant, though he himself was toying with a revision of them – an injection of the “hidden hand” of Adam Smith, the classical liberal economist whose ideas about the beneficial workings of a free market he’d spent his lifetime arguing against.

 

 

 

The Queen of Versailles (2012, dir: Lauren Greenfield)

David Siegel is 74 and owns the biggest timeshare company in the world. Together with Jaqueline Siegel, his 43-year-old trophy wife and former beauty queen, he’s building the “biggest home in America”. And Lauren Greenfield’s documentary is there to watch it happen – the sushi bar, the bowling alley, the sauna, the baseball field, yadda yadda. It’s a place inspired by a visit to Louis XIV’s palace in Versailles, on the outskirts of Paris. Well, that was the original plan. Until reality intervened.
Like Capturing the Friedmans before it, which started out making one documentary but ended up with something quite different, The Queen of Versailles is massively derailed by a large fly in the ointment, to mix messy metaphors. Viz: the economic collapse, as a result of which the Siegels go broke. Not broke broke, just broke in billionaire terms, obviously. But it does mean that Jaqueline has to start flying in a normal plane with normal people, that she has to hire her own Hertz rental car (and is taken aback by the absence of a driver). It’s somewhere round this point that Greenfield’s documentary gains traction, morphing from a point-and-gawp exposé of the very wealthy and not entirely tasteful, with “rich people say the cutest things” fascination, and turning into something which everyone who was stung by the economic downturn can relate to – albeit in a metaphorical manner. The staff are laid off, Jaqueline has her Hertz moment, and soon the devastation is beginning to pile up – the pet lizard dies, the tropical fish are belly up in their tank, there is dog shit on the carpets in the house because no one is cleaning up any more. The superhouse is in mothballs.
There’s nothing more depressing than watching an already poor family going through hard times. But watching rich people trying to tighten the belt, selling stuff, doing without luxuries, that’s less invasive, because it’s all relative and they’re not down to the last buck and anyway they invited the cameras in, no duress. But it’s the same basic process – the initial inability to understand the severity of the situation, followed by the taking of half-hearted measures, followed by lethargy, then panic laced with fantasy recovery scenarios. Spicing this is the Siegels themselves, outspoken in the way that people are when they don’t have to watch their tongues – David claims his possibly illegal machinations mean he was “personally responsible for the re-election of George Bush in 2000”. Lauren, for her part, is worried about being over 40 – “He told me that when I hit 40 he was going to trade me in for two 20-year-olds”. Against this we have the Filipino nanny who is sending money back to her child at home. The last time she saw him he was seven. He’s now 26. And there’s the limo driver, who also used to be a multi-millionaire, owned 19 properties, now has nothing and is driving cars. For David Siegel the whole thing has been a reality check – “we need to live within our means. Don’t spend money we don’t have.” In this sense Jaqueline – big silicone tits, bottle blonde, a touch of work done on the face – is the perfect stand in for all of us. Overpumped, over-caffeinated, in the dark, a slightly desperate smile and living on the hog.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The perfect 2008 recession documentary
  • The access
  • The pithy, outspoken Siegels
  • The real drama of watching things fall apart

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Queen of Versailles – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Best Films I Saw in 2013

The cast of You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet
Updated 2013-12-30

 

Here they are, the best films I saw in 2013. It’s a Top Ten job with the best in no particular order, followed by a list of films that made the top ten at some point in the year, then got bounced. This is not a Best of 2013, let me quickly point out, just the best films I’ve seen this year. So a film everyone else has seen but I haven’t won’t be here (I’ve not seen American Hustle yet, f’rinstance). And there might be stragglers from 2012 in here which caught up with late. It really is “the best films I have seen this year”. If you’re wondering what to do with that Amazon voucher and your tastes generally aren’t multiplex, this might be a useful place to start.

 

1. You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet (2012, dir: Alain Resnais)

Alain Resnais, now in his nineties, proves there’s life in the new wave dog yet with an amazingly convoluted meta-drama based on two Anouilh plays, thick with formal experiment and managing to weld classical theatre to 21st century techniques. Amazing, and you can bet it made both Lars Von Trier and Todd Solondz chuckle too.

 

2. Aurora (2010, dir: Cristi Puiu)

The Romanian Cristi Puiu made The Death of Mr Lazarescu and also stars in what might be considered a follow-up, a film that tells a story while also running an audit on the current state of the homeland. The story: a very odd one, following what must the dourest hitman (Puiu) through concrete-coloured Bucharest as he goes about his often incredibly mundane business. Shot in long takes, in blue light, in the most unprepossessing of locations, with many shots half through doorways and focusing on the main character and him alone, it’s unique, remarkable and often quite baffling.

 

3. The Heat (2013, dir: Paul Feig)

Because no one is funnier than Melissa McCarthy right now, a buddy-cop comedy in which Sandra Bullock plays the uptight FBI agent reluctantly partnering a wildcat local cop (McCarthy). The plot is slender, but is just enough for Bridesmaids director Paul Feig to hang a few funny set pieces off. Better than that it gives a chance for the two actors to riff rude, with McCarthy inevitably getting the better of Bullock when it comes to being the swearier and more prepared to make herself look a fool. Fancy Bullock being in the best comedy of the year and its most popular sci-fi (which is not on my list because I haven’t seen it yet, for shame).

 

4. Angel & Tony (2010, dir: Alix Delaporte)

Big aah, a simple, short love story about a troubled beautiful young woman and the shy, fat middle-aged fisherman she rather unexpectedly hooks up with. Rather simply, this one’s all about the transformative power of love and is about as bloody lovely as films get.

 

5. I Wish  (2011, dir: Hirokazu Koreeda)

Hirokazu Koreeda’s drama is ostensibly about a kid who wants to make a wish, and believes that by making it at the exact point where two bullet trains’ paths cross, it is sure to come true. In fact he’s just the starting point for a whole series of lightly interconnected transgenerational stories, which the writer/director joins and rejoins. Everything about this film shouts genius – the placing of the camera, the casting, the acting, the editing. It’s also one of the sweetest films, so full of hope and life, I’ve ever seen.

 

6. The Kings of Summer (2013, Jordan Vogt-Roberts)

A coming-of-ager that has the raucous “fuck you” comic edge of Superbad and the elemental undertow of Stand By Me, The Kings of Summer is about a group of boys who head off to the woods one summer, mostly to escape their obnoxious, bullying, clever-clever parents, but partly just to do a bit of growing up. There they trap animals (or make out that they do), grow facial hair, invite girls over and get their hearts broken. It’s strange to find a film that intercuts comedy and heartache so well, that catches that great feeling of freedom that total irresponsibility allows, and which punctuates these switches between the two ends of the dramatic spectrum with contemplative “Ozu shots” of prairies and water and flowers, set to a soundtrack that manages to be both familiar and leftfield.

 

 7. She Monkeys (2011, dir: Lisa Aschan)

A Swedish drama that’s all about girls, power, sex and equestrian vaulting. Expect no fluffy bunnies in this one – in one of its twin-track stories we have a five-year-old girl sexually grooming her older babysitting cousin; in the other a butter-wouldn’t-melt blonde making a sumo-style All About Eve assault on a rival. Cool, unusual, brilliant.

 

8. Sightseers (2012, dir: Ben Wheatley)

A pair of incredibly dim British caravan enthusiasts set off on a tour of esoteric sites of special interest – museums dedicated to pencils or trams etc – and indulge in increasingly psychotic episodes of murder for light relief. A deadpan Natural Born Killers that will have you snorting liquid down your nose.

 

9. The Gatekeepers (2012, dir: Dror Moreh)

The best documentary I saw this year comes from director Dror Moreh, who somehow managed to get all the surviving former heads of the Israeli security agency Shin Bet to talk to him. What he have is little more than a series of talking heads explaining to Moreh how Shin Bet operates. But it is the way that Moreh structures the entirely stereotype-busting revelations dropping from these guys’ mouths – and they each look like a Bond villain of one sort or another – that makes this “jaw to the floor” viewing.

 

10. Silver Linings Playbook (2012, dir: David O Russell)

David O Russell’s sweet but never cute drama about a guy fresh from the funny farm (Bradley Cooper) and his burgeoning relationship with brassy fellow medicatee (Jennifer Lawrence). Underneath the warty carapace this is perfect Hollywood – everyone gets what they deserve, big lessons are learned, there’s silver linings all round, in fact. Or you could just watch it for the performances – Lawrence so good that she forces Robert De Niro to act. Even Chris Tucker puts in a great performance.

 

 

The “Nearly” List

The Sapphires (2012, dir: Wayne Blair)

We keep being told about the revival of the musical (clinkers like Chicago usually), so how come this one about a girl group of aborigine soul singers on a tour of 1960s Vietnam isn’t better known? It’s got songs, jokes, a bit of love and a standout Chris O’Dowd in the lead role. And it’s a true story.

 

Thale (2012, dir: Aleksander Nordaas)

Made for nothing yet looking like it cost millions, this Norwegian horror fantasy about a couple of police clean-up guys who find a mythical creature out in the cellar of a shack in the woods has plot, characters, looks, tension and, a few seconds of ropey CGI apart, is almost perfect.

 

Elena (2011, dir: Andrey Svyagintsev)

Andrey Svyagintsev’s throttled-back thriller about a woman in Russia, her boorish rich husband to whom she’s little more than a nurse, and her Soviet-throwback son and his family, a bunch of layabouts living out in the tower blocks.

 

Mama (2013, dir: Andrés Muschietti)

One of the seven thousand films Jessica Chastain made in the last year or so, Mama is a superior horror film that welds together the haunted house and malevolent-child genres and then throws a lot of switched sympathies into the mix. Watchable as an exercise in genre manipulation alone, or as an out-and-out horror movie, or as a bravura exercise in visual effects, this is one of the best mainstream horror films in years.

 

Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (2012, dir: Alex Gibney)

Close to The Gatekeepers for “well stap my vitals” revelations is Alex Gibney’s remarkable documentary about paedophilia in the Roman Catholic church, how the organisation has been aware for at least 1,700 years that the vows of celibacy and chastity tend either to attract weirdos or make people weird. And that the Church has, by virtue of its institutional power, been able to subvert secular legal systems. This is a gobsmacking documentary of the old-fashioned pavement-pounding sort whose conclusions are that, lovely Pope Francis or no, in terms of moral authority the Catholic church is a busted flush.

 

Shell (2012, dir: Scott Graham)

A star is born, in the shape (the face, mostly) of Chloe Pirrie, the focus of this lugubrious drama about a girl who works in an out-of-the-way petrol station owned by her father. Shell is the girl’s name, it’s the name of a petrol company too, a passing customer jokily quips to the girl, who responds with a deep lack of engagement. Which is what the film is about  – is she going to engage? With Adam, a guy in a hot hatch? With a passing travelling salesman? Possibly with her own father? God forbid. But on this slender “who?” and “when?” director Scott Graham hangs a powerful film as austere and dour as a low church chapel.

 

In the House (2012, dir: François Ozon)

François Ozon doesn’t make dumb films, and in In the House he’s made a film that on one level is about a superbright, sexually precocious, unsettlingly androgynous schoolboy (Ernst Umhauer) who starts writing increasingly personal stories for his teacher (the brilliantly disconcerted Fabrice Luchini). Before long the teacher is hooked, the boy has become a cuckoo in the nest, the wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) is discombobulated, and Ozon has crafted a drama of the sort you can imagine Jacques Derrida and fellow post-structuralists enjoying with beer and a pizza.

 

Byzantium (2012, dir: Neil Jordan)

Neil Jordan does something excellent with the vampire movie in Byzantium. He manages to weld the lush overheated velvet of the Hammer horror, all heaving bosoms and the male gaze, to the austere IKEA ambience of Let the Right One In. As two (possible) sisters of competing vampiric sensibilities we have Gemma Arterton (the busty, Hammer lust-bucket) and Saoirse Ronan (self-assembly vampiric waiflet). Add an abandoned seaside hotel in off season, a few luckless male victims, a couple of bounders and rotters who arrive from the girls’ past to help deliver a rousing Hollywood ending, and you’ve got a film that grips by the throat, teases, entertains and beguiles.

 

8 ½ (1963, dir: Federico Fellini)

This restoration of one of Fellini’s most famous films reminds us what a clever man he was, as well as a consummate film-maker. Taking as its starting point the non-starting Fellini after he had finished La Dolce Vita, it tells the story of a blocked director who hasn’t got the faintest idea what to do next. Which all sounds very indulgent and unnecessarily arthouse, until you actually watch as Fellini slowly starts to spin his on-screen phalanx of actors, make-up people, producers, the director’s diversions, dreams and fantasies into something elaborate, fantastical and even at times funny. Marcello Mastroianni is the Fellini stand-in, and the film is really helped by the presence of Claudia Cardinale and Anouk Aimée, about the hottest women on the planet back in 1963.

 

The Wall (2012, dir: Julian Pölsler)

A weird and wonderful re-imagining of Robinson Crusoe. But instead of a man, it’s a woman (Martina Gedeck). Instead of an island it’s the landlocked country of Austria, inside which a woman on a bit of a weekend break, or something, suddenly discovers that she’s locked inside her rural idyll by an invisible wall. And there she stays for years, making friends with various stray animals, writing her diaries, musing on what it is to be human, alone. A deceptively simple but wonderfully told story, which raises the question of how any of us might cope if suddenly cut off completely from civilisation. And Austria looks pretty fantastic too.

 

Broken Circle Breakdown (2012, dir: Felix Van Groeningen)

Bluegrass music in Belgium provides the sweetener for what looks for one awful moment like it’s going to be a film about a child getting a terminal disease and dying. A child does actually get a terminal disease but that isn’t really what this artfully shot, pungently written drama – about a much-tattooed beauty (Veerle Baetens) striking up a relationship with an ex-punk (Johan Heldenburgh) and becoming a singer in his bluegrass outfit – is about. And god can she sing.

 

Fireworks Wednesday (2006, dir: Asghar Farhadi)

Finally finding its way to some sort of release off the back of the Oscar success of his A Separation, Asghar Farhadi’s 2006 drama patrols a similar border, the one between traditional Islam and the blandishments of the West, and doesn’t so much wag his finger as point out the areas that are going to chafe. A simple story about a naive young girl who finds herself working for a family who seem to have adultery issues – and she’s about to get married herself – it is so well written, well cast and unobtrusively shot that it feels less like watching a movie more like eavesdropping.

 

Child’s Pose (2013, dir: Calin Peter Netzer)

Romania continues to come up with brilliant films, such as this dour drama about a horrible entitled mother trying to get her horrible ungrateful son off the charge of killing a poor child by dangerous driving. As much a portrait of the haves and have-nots of Romania and how justice is entirely in the service of only one of them (guess which), it is also a remarkable drama that withholds its true intentions. Hold on for the extended final sequence, when the mother goes to visit the dead child’s grieving parents, while the son waits out in the car, and remember to keep breathing.

 

The House I Live In (2012, dir: Eugene Jarecki)

Eugene Jarecki’s documentary about the sheer mess of US drugs policy points out the government has spent $1 trillion on the “war against drugs” since President Nixon initiated it, with the result that recreational drug use has changed not a jot. A well researched doc with the right talking heads, attitudinal but never strident.

 

Small Town Murder Songs (2010, dir: Ed Gass-Donnelly)

A drama that asks us to look at the character of an upstanding cop in a Mennonite community and divine the man he used to be – and it isn’t pretty. Peter Stormare’s hangdog features and impassive thousand yard stare make this hellish unusual type of film even more enjoyable.

 

The Queen of Versailles (2012, dir: Lauren Greenfield)

The documentary that asked us to feel billionaire pain, and succeeded. Starting out simply as a film about the building of the biggest private residence in the US, the enterprise somehow became something much more incisive – a story about financial mess we’ve all been going through, seen from the most rarefied of positions. Entirely fascinating.

 

Rust and Bone (2012, dir: Jacques Audiard)

Always making a bad film (Nine, Public Enemies) bearable and a good film (Inception, Contagion) better, Marion Cotillard is on absolute white hot form in this potentially blubbery drama about a woman who loses her legs and the bouncer (equally remarkable Matthias Schoenaearts) who gives her back her taste for life.

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

28 January 2013-01-28

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

Holy Motors (Artificial Eye, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

From Leos Carax, who only seems to manage one feature film a decade, a unique and remarkable French film that only starts to make sense towards the end, after Kylie Minogue has sung us a song. Like Pola X, his last (in 1999), it’s a highly gothic, amphetamine rave of a movie, a mad mix of situationist vignettes following Denis Lavant (who surely should get some award for sheer physicality) as he works his way through a series of disguises, one of which involves being dressed as a mad tramp and kidnapping a model from a photo shoot (played by Eva Mendes). To explain what the plot is about is to ruin it. Just watch it.

Holy Motors – at Amazon

The Queen of Versailles (Dogwoof, cert E, DVD)

What luck. When a documentary maker starts out making Documentary A, only to find that they’re sitting on top of a much bigger story. Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans (nice Jewish family turns out unexpectedly to be anything but) being a prime example. Something similar has happened to Lauren Greenfield. On the way to making a film about “the biggest house in America” – said building being a self-confident, unashamed avowal of success or a nouveau riche monstrosity, depending on your class loyalties – her subjects, timeshare magnate David Siegel and his blonde trophy wife Jaqueline run smack dang into the financial crisis that’s now enveloped us all. Greenfield keeps the camera rolling and, as private jets are swapped for trips on commercial airlines, and Jaqueline’s jaw hits the floor when the Hertz guy tells her the rental car doesn’t come with a driver, we’re fed a fresh portrait of these recessionary times that asks us to feel billionaire pain. Why this works is because it’s the whole financial mess the western world is in boiled down to one fascinating, frequently boggling story.

The Queen of Versailles – at Amazon

Looper (Entertainment One, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Brick was high-school noir, now director Rian Johnson and actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt bring us future noir, a walk through Philip K Dick territory in which Gordon-Levitt plays a heartless hitman offing guys from the future. Until his own future self (played by a soulful Bruce Willis) arrives on the scene. Seen in some quarters as “the 21st century’s The Matrix” – wasn’t that Inception? – Looper efficiently does what sci-fi movies about the future do. It seemingly explores the paradoxes of time travel but mostly it just fucks with our heads. Initially cool, increasingly chaotic, ultimately slightly disappointing, this is nevertheless a worthwhile dystopian sci-fi. The 21st century’s Blade Runner. How’s that?

Looper – at Amazon

 

Ashes (Entertainment One, cert 15, DVD)

Ray Winstone as a hardman with Alzheimer’s – that’s the USP of this unusual gangster thriller also starring Jim Sturgess as Winstone’s son, who busts him out of the clinic and takes him on a road trip for one last hurrah. The whole thing plays like a cross between Rain Man (the trip) and Unforgiven (is Winstone going to recover his mojo and strap the guns back on?). But Ashes has a few twists up its sleeve that certainly got me leaning forwards. Sure, Alzheimer’s as a subject isn’t exactly going to revive the fortunes of Blockbuster but it does allow Winstone to stretch a bit and co-star Jim Sturgess, so out of place as Anne Hathaway’s beau in One Day, is right on the money here too.

Ashes – at Amazon

 

5 Broken Cameras (New Wave, cert E, DVD)

The cameras of the title belong to a Palestinian peasant whose land was cut in two by the Israeli security barrier. We get to see just how they got broken – a bullet is lodged in one, which gives you some idea. A nifty hook on which to hang a documentary and surprisingly the picture it paints of the Israeli army isn’t such a bad one. It’s the Jewish guys in hats and ringlets settling the Palestinian territory who don’t come out of this so well.

5 Broken Cameras – at Amazon

 

Paranorman (Universal, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD)

Not to be confused with Frankenweenie, though there’s definitely some Tim Burton in Paranorman somewhere, here’s an animated kiddie-flick in the new Aardman style (CGI pretending to be claymation) about a boy who can see dead people. It takes a hell of a time to get going but then manages a good 40 minutes of fast Roald Dahl-style ghostly fun before heading for the icky ending someone in a suit decreed. If you’re really young, you’ll probably like it.

Paranorman – at Amazon

 

Keep the Lights On (Peccadillo, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

A decade in the relationship of a New York gay couple – from frenzied early coupling, through crack pipes and promiscuity to… well let’s not ruin the ending. It’s a part-autobiography by writer/director Ira Sachs, and like his Forty Shades of Blue it’s got a distinctive tone of voice, is fresh, non-clichéd and very real. Apparently Sachs is doing a film about elderly gay guys next, starring Michael Gambon and Alfred Molina. Should be interesting.

Keep the Lights On – at Amazon

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013