The title, ‘The Billionaire, the Butler & the Boyfriend,’ might evoke thoughts of a sizzling Mills & Boon romance novel, yet this three-part Netflix documentary delves into a narrative less about love and more about the intricate interplay of wealth, family dynamics, and politics. The documentary focuses on a feud between Liliane Bettencourt with her daughter Françoise Bettencourt Meyers over the former’s friendship with photographer François-Marie Banier. Liliane was the sole heir and daughter of L’Oréal founder Eugène Schueller and she was the world’s richest woman at the time of her death in 2017.
For international viewers who know little or nothing about the Bettencourt family, this series is an intriguing look into the lives of the super rich and how (like several interviewees put it) money makes people mad. Liliane was extremely fond of celebrity photographer Banier, whom she met in 1987 when he was commissioned to photograph her for a magazine. Their growing proximity irked her daughter Françoise to no end, to the extent that she finally filed a lawsuit in 2007 accusing Banier of exploiting Liliane’s goodwill and taking advantage of her old age. However, this lawsuit led to explosive revelations that transcended the jealousies and greed of family and friends, exposing a quid pro quo between the billionaire family and top politicians in France.
Like most Netflix docu-series these days, “The Billionaire, the Butler & the Boyfriend” (Original title: L’Affaire Bettencourt: Scandale chez la femme la plus riche du monde) includes some staged re-enactments of events, a disclaimer for which is issued at the beginning, while all the audio recordings played throughout the runtime are real. The lawsuit against Banier divided the Bettencourt staff, who were all summoned for questioning, leading to the butler Pascal Bonnefoy secretly recording several of Lilliane’s conversations in a guest room for months. It’s these tapes that led to national scandal in France and forms the crux of the documentary.
Titled “He Was Worth It”, a pun on L’Oréal famous tagline “You Are Worth It”, the first episode of “The Billionaire, the Butler & the Boyfriend” sheds light on Liliane’s friendship with François-Marie Banier and how it soured her relationship with her only child. The creators don’t shy away from using several clips of L’Oréal ads to add a dash of glamour to the already excessive tale of a billionaire. The second episode is called “A Tangled Web” which takes a political turn and sheds light on Liliane’s money affairs and illegal donations to top politicians. It’s quite remarkable how a daughter’s lawsuit, aimed at “protecting” her aging mother from a man she deemed predatory, ultimately led to the exposure of a staggering tax fraud and a money trail that reached straight to the Presidential office. It’s the stuff movies are made of, and sure, it’s not surprising, but these are real people, who had real impact on people’s lives.
“Banier was excessive. He brought some fantasy into her life.”/”He is downright rude. And his outrageousness is refreshing.”/”She was suprised by this character, but also attracted to him, because he was worlds apart from the conventional, codified, and mundane world around her.” – These are just some of the things various interviewees had to say about the personality of Mr Banier, who some believe had a vice-like grip on Liliane.
While the docu-series is peppered with interviews featuring several journalists and individuals who worked for the Bettencourt family, most notably Patrice De Maistre, Liliane’s asset manager, it’s hard not to notice that the creators couldn’t secure an interview with a single member of the Bettencourt family. However, this is understandable not only because they possess a level of wealth that is challenging for most to conceptualize in terms of numbers or scale (so a Netflix appearance is hardly alluring), but also because the Bettencourt family has consistently been known for its reclusive nature. But the series does feature archival news interviews of Lilliane and Françoise Bettencourt Meyers, to make up for the lack of interviews.
Just the last part of the documentary was slightly slow and felt overstretched, and the creators try to paint Liliane in some sort of twisted “frail old lady who was exploited by those around her,” a narrative that is hard to buy. Liliane Bettencourt seems to have been a smart businesswoman with so much money that she didn’t even know what to do with most of it and sure as hell had no problem blowing it on whoever or whatever she felt like. She lived and died as the richest woman in the world. Even if she wasn’t the happiest, she was certainly more than comfortable until the end and faced zero consequences for tax evasion. Her life story is a story worth looking into.
Rating: 7 on 10. You can stream the documentary series on Netflix.
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