Re:View – Double Bill – ‘The Queen Of Versailles’ and ‘NO’
Here are two visions of future dreams, one shrill and misguided, the other filled with dignity and emotional power…
The Queen Of Versailles
There’s a critical consensus that this modern morality docu-tale of a timeshare billionaire and his pneumatic third wife moves from schadenfreude to feelings of compassion. Well, not on my watch it doesn’t.
As the couple downsize after attempting to build America’s largest and most staggeringly vulgar mansion, I think we’re supposed to find it in our hearts to admire the constancy of Jackie and David’s October-December marriage. But David, who openly admits to illegal activities helping George Bush to win his election, blatantly pandered to the sub-prime mortgage market, gypping the marks his staff dragged through the doors of their timeshare scams, while his ex-model trophy wife shrieked in cliches and indulged her shopaholic addictions.
Yes, Jackie once got some kind of computer degree at college before bagging herself a billionaire, but throughout the family’s downsizing we see her do nothing except spend and direct other people about. She seems incapable of even cleaning up the shit littering the floor from a hundred exotic pets, and is unable to stop buying plastic rubbish. As she totters around her monstrously ugly home in a variety of Russian-Whore outfits, ordering bargain buckets of junk food and trying to remember the ghastly things she owns (‘A Faberge egg – but larger!’) what are we really meant to feel, other than revulsion?
You try to think of something positive and are stumped. Okay, Jackie seems marginally less revolting than the Kardashian-Borg (currently exporting their twisted version of American Dream to Nigeria, where one of them just charged $500,000 to be stared at in a nightclub).
If Jackie’s vulgarity and stupidity mitigate any sense of sympathy, David is more pernicious, lacking any sense of self-awareness; he appears to nurse an abiding dead-eyed hatred for his wife and exhibits total indifference to his children. Despite Jackie’s declarations of intelligence the couple seem barely capable of sentient thought. The only sympathetic character in the documentary is a nanny and surrogate mother who has not seen her own family in years.
Director Lauren Greenfield has been praised for rounding out her portrait and not merely setting up the family as a carnival exhibit, but I found it very hard to find anything salvageable or remotely admirable about these self-centred delusional grotesques. Are they victims of the American Dream? Possibly. Are they self-aggrandising barbarians with an appallingly misplaced sense of entitlement? Definitely. David shows no remorse for the jobs his employees lost or the payments his customers couldn’t meet. Jackie seems unable to connect with anything real at all.
The tragedy is not that they got caught in an economic downturn, but that the system raised them up in the first place. They’re now in Hell, and simply appear dumbfounded, as if it’s not possible to learn from bad experiences.
By contrast, Pablo Larrain’s ‘NO’ comes as a complete shock after previous grimecore films like ‘Tony Manero’. It’s the true story of the Pinochet referendum, in which Chile’s ruling generals were granted 15 minutes of nightly air-time for a month against the opposing socialists. Gael Garcia Bernal plays the Mad Man who is convinced he should create the campaign for the ‘No’s, even though he has little sympathy for them. The socialists are self-defeating, busy cobbling together footage of the disappeared and the tortured, admitting that the referendum results will be rigged anyway, until Bernal explains that negative footage will only turn voters off.
Realising that the outcome lies with the little old ladies who’ll vote Pinochet back in because they don’t want to return to bread queues, he develops a Coca-Cola style campaign of rainbows, sunlit fields and jingles, to the horror of the committed agitators who feel that he has not grasped the gravity of the situation.
Bernal has understood a universal truth, though; that the steps between ideas must be cut shallow – in order to win the vote he must stop the undecided voters from feeling scared and make them want what they can see on TV. Chile’s version of the American Dream.
But he has trouble convincing the party. To make matters worse, Bernal’s leftist wife is beaten up by the military and his boss openly courts the Pinochet ‘Yes’ campaign. The reason for Larrain’s odd choice of film stock becomes apparent when he starts mixing in real footage of the generals and the rallies in the build-up to the vote. Bernal is a revelation, watching, listening, empathising, only rarely voicing an opinion – but when Pinochet’s men start to sense defeat, the campaign turns ugly and the threats begin, prompting Bernal to raise his game.
One of the most eloquent moments functions as a grace note at the end, after the vote. Bernal quietly walks through the celebrations with his son, then returns to presenting product commercials with his boss, just as before. Worlds don’t change overnight, but the change in him has made him realise what he lost.
It’s superlative fimmaking with a stunning central performance, as passionate and dramatic as any mainstream thriller, and deserving of the highest praise. Will audiences see it? Sadly, that’s more debatable.