At the opening night of the Sundance film festival, the celebrities and sponsors took their seats to watch The Queen of Versailles, Lauren Greenfield’s documentary about a billionaire couple on a mission to build America’s largest mansion. David and Jacqueline Siegel set out with heady dreams of 10 separate kitchens and a private skating rink. They wound up blasted by the financial crash, their timeshare business floundering, their paradise in ruins. If the festival’s chairman, Robert Redford, wanted an emblematic film to kick off this event, he could hardly have plumped for a better title.
“It’s no secret, times are dark and grim,” Redford said at Sundance’s regular base in Park City, Utah – a millionaire’s playground that contains three ski resorts and more tourists than residents. “We’re suffering from a government in paralysis and it’s all pretty grim. But the happy thing is that here, for this week, we’re going to see work from artists. And even though their work may be reflective of these hard times, there is no paralysis here.”
Greenfield’s film sets the tone for what could be a choppy, troublesome programme of independent productions, reflecting wider tensions in the land at large. The 10-day schedule promises films on such thorny issues as healthcare, tax evasion and the ongoing “war on drugs”. Elsewhere, the financial thriller Arbitrage casts Richard Gere as a corrupt hedge fund manager trying to cover his tracks.
But organisers were keen to point out that there is also some laughter amid the darkness, with space for Julie Delpy‘s Two Days in New York, a sequel to her 2007 hit Two Days in Paris, and the phone-sex comedy For a Good Time, Call …, while the Bridesmaids effect is evident on Bachelorette, a scatological wedding caper starring Kirsten Dunst.
“Independent comedy is a real trend,” said the festival’s director, John Cooper. “I don’t know if it’s from a commercial standpoint or whether people are just ready for that. And there’s a lot of family stuff too, questioning marriage as a convention. A modern approach to family is a theme in a lot of films and that started [two years ago] with The Kids Are All Right.”
Other potential highlights include Red Hook Summer, a coming-of-age drama from Spike Lee, and Stephen Frears‘ Lay the Favourite, a Las Vegas-set outing starring Bruce Willis, Rebecca Hall and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Now in its 33rd year, Sundance remains America’s largest independent film showcase, credited with launching the careers of a range of film-makers, including Steven Soderbergh, Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino. At times, however, the event has risked becoming a victim of its own success, with detractors accusing it of turning into a boutique outlet for thinly veiled Hollywood productions. In recent years, Sundance appears to have made a concerted effort to return to its independent roots, establishing a new festival category (NEXT) championing mico-budget productions.
In 2011, the festival enjoyed its best sales year ever, with 45 productions being snapped up for distribution. Insiders are already predicting healthy business this year.
Redford struck a note of caution on the opening day. “I want film-makers to know we’ve got their back,” he said. “But we try to describe the pitfalls and not let them get deluded to the point where they get too disappointed when their films don’t get bought. They’ve got to know: it’s a hard road. And they have to be careful of the hype surrounding the festival. Because once they leave, the hype may disappear with them. So I say: ‘Deal with the reality.’ Enjoy it while it’s here, but enjoy it like Cinderella at the ball.”
Assuming the moral of The Queen of Versailles had not been clear enough, Redford was quick to reiterate it. Dreams crash and burn, and the best-laid plans may not be sufficient. Once the festival wraps up and the lights are turned off, many Sundance hopefuls will wind up as pumpkins.