Schadenfreude: The Movie (official title: The Queen of Versailles) made me wish I were a member of a film club so we could all get together to screen and then have a rap session about the movie. I know the ensuing conversation, fueled by whiskey and a resurgence of the fringe politics we thought we’d left behind in college, would be belligerent and rollicking. I guess in theory any movie, even the dumbest one, could be a stepping stone to deeper things. But more than most movies I’ve seen recently, Versailles is like a Rorschach test, asking you to draw your own conclusions about the Siegels, the American dream, wealth, marriage, and other piddly stuff.
The Queen of Versailles is Lauren Greenfield’s documentary chronicling David and Jackie Siegel’s construction of their audacious 97,000-square foot dream home in swampy Florida. (It is modeled after the real Versailles, but aside from ostentation, the two Versailles have little in common.) Filmed just in time for the Great Recession, the film’s focus takes a detour as the economy — and David’s time-share company, Westgate Resorts — begin to tank. Suddenly in debt, David puts the half-finished Versailles on the market while the family finds itself in the middle of an economic and existential crisis.
Truthfully, I feel some of the schadenfreude that a lot of the audience no doubt experienced. But more than anything I’m just saddened by the Siegels’ story. Not because the fate of their tacky mansion once hung in the balance; or because they had to fire so much of the help that they could no longer keep up with the tide of dog poop; or because they were forced to hire a rental car on a trip, then were surprised to learn it didn’t come with a driver; or because they had to shop at Walmart to get discounts on heaps of redundant Christmas presents their children would likely forget not long after they’d been unwrapped. No, I feel bad because they seem like intensely unhappy people, living hollow lives, and they don’t know how to fix it.
I see the same ambivalent empathy in a lot of the viewer reaction, be it from my ad hoc, one-way, virtual film club (i.e. me perusing IMDB user reactions) or from my homeboy, Roger Ebert. Most of them take a little delight in seeing the tables turned on the Siegels. (Some of them take a lot of delight.) Many of them are outraged. A few of them are a little more contrarian, casting the Siegels in a rosier light: they seem like nice people; they just got a little carried away, and nuts to those of us watching as we clutch our “Eat the rich” bumper stickers. (Disclaimer: I don’t own such a bumper sticker nor do I believe in eating the rich. And yet it felt like those contrarians were speaking to me. I should mention too that I find very odd the idea that only people who have knee-jerk, allergic reactions to wealth itself would find anything troubling about the Siegels. Come on, contrarian IMDB posters.)
I think this movie is supposed to be a mirror for all of us. It’s as much an invitation to examine our own lives and values as it is a portrait of a very particular kind of privilege. What I disagreed with in many of those reviews was the congratulatory tone: these people are awful, good for me for not being them. Granted, it’s impossible not to make some kind of judgment when you’re watching this movie. For an overwhelming majority of us, aspects of the Siegels’ existence — the sheer magnitude of stuff, power, and places they have access to — are completely foreign. But to my mind the biggest difference between the Siegels and the 99-percenters is more a question of scale than anything. The Siegels waste time, buy crap they don’t need, fill up houses with it, get a bigger house or a car or a boob job to show off to someone else. The things people feel such hostility towards them for are the same things all of us have been guilty of at some point or another, sometimes rarely, sometimes constantly. How many of us are living lives that are as wasteful, only commensurate with our income bracket? Is it okay because we see ourselves as benign figures, because we probably don’t make a livelihood on hawking effing timeshares to people who can’t really afford them, or because we’ve never had the notion to give our kids their own movie theater or indoor skating rink?
(Would it be wrong to indulge our children like that if we had the means? Once upon a time, kids had to shuck corn til the cows came home, and then the very next day they might have to leave home to go get married and start popping out babies. Then modern agriculture came along and child labor laws and all of a sudden kids were allowed to be kids, and on top of that they were awarded several extra years to experience the newly-minted adolescence, during which time they were free to do nothing but mope, cry, lollygag, and neck at Inspiration Point. Now that’s pretty indulgent if you ask me. But at long last, society could afford it!!!!)
Sorry, I couldn’t help myself with that humorous and 100% historically accurate aside. I’m not trying to say that this is strictly a glass houses issue, that we can’t judge the Siegels because we, the audience, suck in many of the same ways. I guess all I’m really saying is if we judge the Siegels, we better not stop there. There’s a scene where the very frank David Siegel sums up his financial situation: he’s in it up to here because the banks used to make it easy for him to get cheap money. Without that, he doesn’t have the same business, couldn’t really afford the accoutrements of his life, didn’t even have savings for the kids to go to school. He may recognize shades of himself in the bank’s predatory actions — his bread and butter is selling people crap they probably can’t afford — but if he does, he doesn’t put it explicitly. Possibly he doesn’t see himself in the vicious cycle at all. In another scene, Jackie very intriguingly throws her financial lot in with the “regular” people, decrying bank bailouts seemingly without recognizing anything special about her own financial position.
For me, that’s the most damning thing about the Siegels: the lack of awareness, self- and otherwise. That should be one of the big takeaways of this movie. And that means we should do our best not to be swept away by the same wave of irony that kept preventing the Siegels from reaching deeper levels of introspection.
So that’s one side of the coin: seeing how the bad in the Siegels resides in us, too. The other side is seeing the humanity in them. Many viewers may not care to extend any to them, but I thought it was on display in the movie’s best domestic scenes — an awkward Christmas party, an awkward gift exchange, an awkward birthday dinner, an awkward squabble over why the lizard is dead and whose fault it is. The Siegels, through their own words, damn themselves more than any crude propagandist ever could. But the movie paints a richer portrait than you’d think. Jackie in particular comes across as warm, a little ditzy (not dumb), fairly pleasant. She covets things as well as children (though admits she wouldn’t have had so many if she didn’t think she could get help raising them). As the recession drags on, the relationship between David and Jackie visibly sours as he becomes more engrossed in their financial crisis and she tries, with varying success, to cut back. It’s especially interesting to listen to the commentary of the eldest daughter and the niece that live with the Siegels; they are open with their thoughts about growing up wealthy and about the nature of the relationship between David and Jackie (she’s a trophy wife, says the daughter). Jackie, still buoyed by the film’s end, seems all the more committed to her family and marriage now that their lives are entering a (comparatively) more difficult time. David offers his own colossal ”meh,” barricading himself more and more in his den with its growing mountain of papers and big screen TV. He talks about how, as long as he’s got these money problems hanging over his head, it will consume him. The director asks him something like, at times like this, do you ever receive strength or solace from his marriage? David answers with an unequivocal no, and it’s hard not to feel a little sad about this imbalance.
Versailles reminded me of one of my favorite documentaries, 2006′s Jesus Camp, which looked at a charismatic church and its annual summer camp for children. They both do pretty much the same thing: show us people you’d think you wouldn’t have a lot in common with, whose ideas and behavior may be infuriating, and it makes us understand a little more about where they’re coming from by just letting them do most of the talking and showing us moments that remind us that, holy shit, they’re people too. Amazing. So, based on that strength, I give Versailles five out of five Hertz rental cars.