"Farewell, My Queen," "The Queen of Versailles" and the Perils of Conspicuous Consumerism

"Farewell, My Queen," "The Queen of Versailles" and the Perils of Conspicuous Consumerism
Trouble in Paradise: Léa Seydoux (left) and Julie-Marie Parmentier (as another maid) in "Farewell, My Queen."
(© 2012 - GMT Productions)

By a bizarre coincidence, the hubristic experience of a fantastically wealthy woman who calls home Versailles – a stately pleasure dome that seals her off from massive social upheaval – is the partial subject of two new movies. Set 222 years apart, they are timely moral fables about money being the root not of evil but of ignorance, the willful refusal to see and understand.

Benoît Jacquot’s captivating “Farewell, My Queen,” which opens today, takes place in the original Versailles of Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger), whose detachment from the imminent French Revolution is observed by the devoted young servant, Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux, affecting as the film’s protagonist), whose job is to get books from the palace library and read them to the languid, tetchy monarch. The film was adapted by Jacquot and Gilles Taurand from a 2002 novel by the French historian Chantal Thomas.

The queen of Lauren Greenfield’s reality documentary “The Queen of Versailles,” which arrives next Friday, is the nouveau rich American spendthrift Jackie Siegel. Its Versailles is the 90,000 square-foot palace, a mash-up of the Île-de-France château and Las Vegas’s Paris Hotel, that she and her self-made billionaire husband David built in Orlando just before the subprime mortgage crisis struck his Westgate Resorts time-share empire. They were forced, temporarily, to stop building America’s largest house and Siegel lost control of a 52-story resort in Vegas into which he had poured over $400 million.

“Farewell, My Queen” is as brisk and suspenseful as Patrice Chéreau’s “Queen Margot” (1994) and Bertrand Tavernier’s “The Princess of Montpensier” (2011). French heritage dramas like these are less formal and reverent than their British equivalents. They are also rougher, more socialistic, and candid in their approach to physical and moral squalor.  A history teacher once told my class there was a recorded instance of a French aristocrat who found a cockroach eating the scalp beneath her Pompadour wig — a handy metaphor for the decadence of the Ancien Régime.  “Farewell, My Queen” doesn’t go that far, but it quickly establishes the class divisions in France on the cusp of conflagration: it begins with Sidonie, who lives with other maids in a sparsely decorated flat, scratching mosquito bites after waking; soon afterwards there’s a shot of the sans culottes with their pigs.

The labyrinthine palace itself is far from pristine and the corridor in its bowels where servants and court officials throng, gossip, and expostulate whenever terrible news arrives from Paris is as murky and threatening as a Le Marais street at night. In the palace, there are rats, real ones, alongside those courtiers who are quick to make their getaways with priceless objets d’art when the end draws near.

News comes that the Bastille has fallen and Sidonie and her co-workers react with appropriate apprehension, or get drunk in the case of the little old librarian who’s Sidonie’s mentor. The queen, instead, ponders fabrics and fashions and frets about her relationship with the imperious, conniving Duchesse de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen), with whom she is infatuated. Even when it dawns on her that there’ll be no escape, all she can do is burn her old love letters.

Sidonie is educated and intelligent as well as beautiful (Jacquot tilts the camera up and down her cleavage several times before eventually disrobing her) but blinded by her platonic love of the queen as Marie Antoinette is blinded by her subliminal lust for the duchesse. Desirous of becoming the queen’s closest confidante, Sidonie herself encounters hubris – and potential capture and death – when she takes on that role in a scheme to get the duchesse out of Versailles. Ironically succeeding in her goal, even as Marie Antoinette evaporates from the movie, she finds herself stripped of her clothes, her livelihood, and her identity. Her personal revolution leaves her like Les Mis’s Cosette, minus the success story, but the journey to nowhere is riveting.

The journey of Jackie Siegel, a onetime beauty queen and model, and her husband, a self-anointed “king” who had himself painted as one, is equally involving, but since it’s not distanced by the passage of epochs its aftertaste lingers longer. The plight of the Siegels is the plight of everyone who foreclosed in 2007-09 writ larger than life.

“Do you just gawp at it?” a colleague asked when I told her about the documentary’s immersion in the Siegels’ vulgar opulence and its schadenfreude-inducing tale of their lifestyle. You can’t help yourself. Greenfield piles on little metaphors as the Siegels, who dwell in a temporary mansion home as they wait for their dream house to be completed, plunge into debt. They have eight kids (including an adopted punkette), but none of them takes care of a pet lizard, which dies. After most of the servants are released, no one cleans up after the dogs. The most telling detail is that Siegel had erected a Xanadu for his family, but hadn’t provided for the kids’ education.

At Christmas, the reckless Jackie goes crazy with a credit card in a toy store. The increasingly depressed David, interviewed on camera, bluntly says she’s no help – “it’s like having another child.” Unlike the solipsistic Marie Antoinette, though, Jackie is good company, an open, optimistic woman with not a hint of fatalism or falseness. She’s the de facto star of a persuasive film about the American diseases of overreaching, pathological consumerism, and sticking one’s head in the sand — together they might be labeled the Versailles Syndrome.

Since David threw Greenfield and her crew out of their lives, he has sued the director for defamation. His chief complaint seems to be the film’s indication that his business was collapsing. In an interview with the New York Times, he stated that Westgate Resorts was still profitable and that Versailles’ construction is proceeding. The Times’s Joe Nocera suggests the lawsuit is unlikely to succeed.