Power politics, French style
An enjoyably gossipy account of French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s rise to power, “The Conquest’’ is most notable for coming out while its subject is still in office, much as Oliver Stone’s “W.’’ did in 2008. Unlike Stone, director and co-writer Xavier Durringer isn’t interested in epic pop psychology or partisan grandstanding. “Conquest’’ is a seriocomic portrait of naked ambition and a depiction of petty office politics on a national scale. It’s a deadpan hoot that lacks the bite it could and arguably should have had.
The film anchors itself on May 6, 2007 - the day Sarkozy (played by Denis Podalydès, a reasonable facsimile) became France’s president with 53 percent of the vote - and flits back and forth through the five preceding years, when the right-wing politician was amassing power during his tenure in the cabinet of President Jacques Chirac (a bluff Bernard le Coq) while simultaneously losing his wife, Cécilia (Florence Pernel), to dissatisfaction and an extramarital affair.
The film’s chief flaw is its failure to illuminate what’s going on inside Mme. Sarkozy’s head and heart, but the impact of her abandonment on her husband is immediate and delicious. He doesn’t miss her so much as desperately need her by his side in public, and he frantically tries to woo her back even as he’s dallying with a hot blond journalist (Ellie Tardy). (Sarkozy’s subsequent marriage to actress-model-hyphenate Carla Bruni is, sadly, beyond the scope of this film’s time frame.)
“The Conquest’’ presents itself as “a work of fiction based on real people and events,’’ and it unfolds in government offices and over power lunches, the characters bluffing, threatening, compromising, and folding in their various bids for political turf. Other than Sarkozy and Chirac, the characters will be largely unfamiliar to US audiences, but a quick Google will fix that, and, besides, they’re all recognizable types, from Sarkozy’s chief rival, the outfoxed silver fox Dominique de Villepin (Samuel Labarthe) to the campaign team led by an unctuous Pierre Charon (Dominique Besnehard).
The Fellini-esque musical score by Nicola Piovani counts as a character in its own right and effortlessly sets the film’s tone: An arch opera buffa about a little Napoleon (his enemies call him “the midget’’) who dreams big and refuses to let anything get in his way. This Sarkozy sees the presidency the way a terrier sees a tennis ball: There just isn’t anything else. His foundering marriage and the fact that there already is a president of France are minor matters.
Consequently, there’s a lot that isn’t included in this movie’s lightly jaundiced view of the rush to power: the politicians of the left, the immigrant rioters of autumn 2005, the French people. “The Conquest’’ marvels at a man for whom celebrity is a tool to larger ends (Sarkozy can’t go on a cycling vacation without inviting the national press along) and quietly shakes its head at his cynicism. “Politics is a dumb game played by smart people,’’ the hero crows late in the game, which only leaves open the question of who’s getting outsmarted.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.