It’s not often that the biggest blockbuster movie event of the year thematically dovetails with a small, independent documentary in limited release. But our nation’s continuing economic crisis has become a dominating factor in just about every facet of our lives, including the movies we watch. So perhaps it’s not such a coincidence that both real-life and Hollywood storytellers would be interested in interrogating that very same crisis. Lauren Greenfield’s The Queen of Versailles and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises—both opening in theaters Friday—offer accounts of how these dire times of financial insecurity and class conflict have put even the rich and the powerful in a precarious state.
“You think this can last?” says Anne Hathaway’s cat-burglar Selina Kyle at a swank dinner party in the Dark Knight Rises. “There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne…. When it hits, you’re all going to wonder how you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.”
The dialogue could serve as a tagline for The Queen of Versailles, whose subjects, like Wayne Enterprises’ CEO Bruce Wayne and the vaunted elite of Gotham, must contend with the new realities of the world as their gilded life unravels.
When we first meet 73-year-old David Siegel, the head of Westgate Resorts—the world’s biggest time-share company—and his perky 43-year-old blonde wife Jackie, they are on top of the world—sort of. Jackie’s trying to raise eight kids, clean up the “doggy caca” on the carpet, and deal with the stress of her family’s largest undertaking: the construction of the biggest domestic home in the world, a 90,000-square-foot palace they call “Versailles,” complete with wide, winding staircases, a bowling alley, video arcade and roller-skating rink. (It’s Wayne Manor—for real.) “That’s not my room, that’s my closet,” she says at one point.
The Siegels’ name for their property proves to be cruelly ironic. As a symbol of the corrupt 18th Century French monarchy, the palace at Versailles was one of the targets of the French Revolution. Three months after the storming of the Bastille, crowds besieged the property and forced the royal family out of their sheltered lives.
For the Siegels, revolution comes in the collapse of global financial markets. The real estate bubble bursts, time-share buyers retrench, and they must put their dream house on the market or watch it go into foreclosure—something that the headstrong David Siegel refuses to submit to. With over $50 million already invested into the building, the bank wants them to unload it for $15 million. As we watch them undergo their version of penny-pinching—reducing their maid staff, shopping at WalMart—the documentary becomes the dark flip side of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Jackie lives in quasi-denial—wearing fur coats while spouting off that she can’t afford a watch—while pere Siegel becomes more combative, depressed and withdrawn, a shell of his former arrogant septuagenarian self.
In The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne and Gotham City’s peaceful established order is also suddenly uprooted when the terrorist villain Bane takes over the metropolis and mass anarchy ensues: prisoners are released into the streets and various members of the elite class are punished for their alleged crimes against the less fortunate. It’s a more vivid, visceral and violent depiction of the Wall Street collapse than what destabilizes the Siegels, but that’s Hollywood for you.
And like David Siegel, Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne is a hobbled man, a once master of the universe walking with a cane who prematurely retires from his crime-fighting days. Though the Dark Knight reemerges to battle again, he, too, is eventually crippled and stripped of the vaunted stature he once held.
There is no outright class warfare in The Queen of Versailles—unless you consider the class tensions that could arise between audiences watching the documentary and the obscenely wealthy characters they’re observing, and to a certain degree, ridiculing. It’s hard to like the Siegels, but awfully easy to snicker at their enormous wealth and untouchable superiority (David claims to have helped George W. Bush get elected through some form of illicit means.)
Indeed, many of the pleasures of watching The Queen of Versailles come from seeing the comeuppance of the upper class. While director Laura Greenfield does her best to keep her objectivity, there’s an undeniable ironic sense of justice when we see a man who made his living selling “dream” vacations to those who couldn’t afford them lose his own financially overextended dream home.
Jackie, who comes from more humble beginnings—she went from an engineering degree to a career in beauty pageants and modeling—is definitely the more sympathetic figure. If the film achieves a level of complexity beyond an episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Flailing, it’s in its attempts to find humanity in the nouveaux richest 1%. While that effort may not always succeed—it’s hard to buy Jackie’s encounter at a Hertz rental car counter, in which she wonders aloud, “What’s my driver’s name?”—the overall project is not that far from Christopher Nolan’s ambitions with The Dark Knight Rises.
Both films convey complicated depictions of America’s class structures. (It’s also worth noting that both films have ambiguous endings; will the fallen rise again?). In an apparent leveling of the social order, the films show the super-rich as predatory and vulnerable, charismatic and dysfunctional, privileged and victim, powerful and pathetic. No one is immune to wide-ranging societal corrections, these films show, where even the strongest can be brought down to the bottom rung—and even a billionaire can have a bad year.
Anthony Kaufman has written about films and the film industry for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Village Voice, and Slate. He is currently a regular contributor to Variety, The Wall Street Journal Online, Filmmaker Magazine, The Utne Reader, and writes the ReelPolitik blog for Indiewire.com.