The Queen of Versailles is an exceptional, must-watch film that’s better reality TV than most reality television. We need more documentaries–and more reality television–like this.
Bravo’s broadcast of the film tonight and again on Friday makes surprising sense, since the network almost exclusively now traffics in dramatizing and mocking the lives of the rich, making its viewers feel better about their lives while still giving them a glimpse of the high life. Bravo smartly picked up the film at Sundance last year, where it won the award for directing.
The film follows Jackie and David Siegel, who are building the United States’ largest private home in Orlando, but it’s really so much more than that, and I’m not just talking about the effects of the recession. It’s really about relationships, love, desire, and dreams, yet is never reduced to such platitudes.
Because the filmmaker, Lauren Greenfield, spent time with the family over three years, they grew comfortable with the presence of cameras and let their guard down. They’re obviously aware of what’s happening–at one point, Jackie hilariously says, “I guess I’ll have to watch the movie to find out what’s going on in my life”–but let the cameras in anyway. (It’s worth noting that David Siegel is suing Greenfield for defamation, though a judge recently called him “inconsistent and incredible.”)
The result is comedy, drama, and tragedy all in one. I was surprised by how much sympathy I felt at times for some of them, especially Jackie, who does not start off as a sympathetic character at all. I laughed and felt pain; cringed and wanted to spend more time with them.
The film is smartly crafted, with the editing acting working subtly but effectively, sometimes emphasizing and illustrating and other times contradicting its subjects. Most significantly, Greenfield also develops characters over time, withholding key information that allows us to see the person more fully.
There are devastating moments and ones of pure joy, and there’s so much surprise. I’m not mentioning plot points for a reason, and although the trailer below should hook you, it’s so much better to just watch and enjoy the discovery, whether you’re shaking your head, asking “what the hell?”, or tearing up.
The Queen of Versailles is a lesson in reality television: skillful production matters, but time and reality are a producer’s best friends. Soft-scripting and budget-saving shortcuts like spending minimal amounts of time filming will never yield results like this, which is pure art and entertainment all in one.