By Christine Kearney
PARK CITY, Utah (Reuters) - The Sundance Film Festival opened on Thursday night with four features, including a documentary highlighting America's housing crisis, the fractured American dream and values humbled by today's lackluster economy.
The documentary, "The Queen of Versailles," follows self-made former billionaire and timeshare mogul David Siegel and his wife Jackie, who at first glance may not seem in touch with many Americans who have struggled in the current, downbeat economy.
The film, which debuted Thursday night to a packed house and solid applause, opens with the couple constructing their dream house: A sprawling 90,000 square foot mansion named "Versailles" inspired by the French palace.
But the story eventually comes to resemble many of the lessons learned by those who have lost their homes, jobs and experienced the effects of the economic crisis.
"The American dream has always been this idea of home ownership," director Laura Greenfield told Reuters, but the film shows the Siegels dealing with the slumping economy, like many in the United States, and "how they downsize and cope with the situation," eventually rediscovering what is important to them.
"They do take on this everyman quality that ends up putting them nearer to us in terms of the overreaching of America and downsizing and getting back to core values," said Greenfield.
"Versailles" is one of several high-profile films here that show Americans tackling problems associated with the weak economy, greed and dreams reevaluated.
"It's no secret that times are dark and grim," Robert Redford, whose Sundance Institute for independent filmmaking backs the festival, the largest gathering for U.S. independent filmmakers, told reporters on Thursday.
Even though Americans were experiencing some hopelessness, including a Washington in "paralysis," Redford said Sundance audiences could be upbeat because while some films "might be reflective of these hard times...there is not paralysis here."
10 DAYS; 100+ FILMS
Overall, there are more than 100 fiction and documentary films showing at the festival that runs for the 10 days in the ski resort town of Park City, Utah, east of Salt Lake City.
Other opening night screenings include two fictional tales, "Hello I Must Be Going" starring Melanie Lynskey as a demoralized, divorced 35-year-old who moves back in with her parents and "Wish You Were Here," an Australian film starring Joel Edgerton as a man clinging to a shattered family.
"Searching For Sugar Man," competing in the world documentary section, completes the opening night lineup. It is one of many films here centered on musicians and shows two fans looking into the mystery of how a would-be 1970s rock icon declined into obscurity.
Festival director John Cooper said the opening night films reflect the choice of more experienced storytelling at a festival that prides itself on being a launch pad for careers and for premiering low-budget hits like "Little Miss Sunshine" and documentary "An Inconvenient Truth."
"We like a filmmaker who knows the ropes -- something that will play well," he said.
Of all the opening films, Greenfield's "Versailles" was the most hyped. Adding to the buzz, David Siegel sued the filmmakers and Sundance for defamation over promotional materials for the film, but Greenfield said she could not comment on the lawsuit.
Coming into the festival, other films on which audiences and buyers are focused include Spike Lee's "Red Hook Summer," "Red Lights" with Cillian Murphy, Sigourney Weaver and Robert De Niro and Stephen Frears' "Lay The Favorite" starring Rebecca Hall, Bruce Willis and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
"Bachelorette," with Kirsten Dunst and Isla Fisher tells of a group of young, single women casting aside bitterness at a hedonistic bachelorette party. Numerous other stars are expected to appear including Kate Bosworth, Chris Rock, Julie Delpy and Paul Simon as the tiny, snowy town transforms into promotional suites and film parties.
Redford talked of the "two sides" of Sundance with marketers having descended upon its success years ago and at times misplaced hype, but said it was still a place for indie filmmakers to find their feet.
Sundance is offering filmmakers a new service this year advising on the latest methods of Internet distribution and Redford heralded more freedom and control for filmmakers by releasing films and reaching audiences via the Web.
"It's pretty obvious we are in a period of tremendous change," he told the opening film audience. "We embrace it."
(Reporting By Christine Kearney; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)