Directed by Xavier Durringer
Although he has but a sliver of Obama's acting talent, Nicolas Sarkozy's uncanny ability to reposition himself on the issues has caused innumerable headaches for the French left. He may wear his heart on his sleeve, but his words always manage to change: this is a guy who, as a candidate, called for the Fifth Republic to erase the legacy of 1968, but claimed as a recession-era president that "laissez-faire capitalism is over." He morphs according to his sense of job security, and this regular turnover of intentions is crucial to Xavier Durringer's The Conquest. This is a study of Sarkozy's rise to power between 2002 and 2007, but it's no audience-flattering cartoon like Oliver Stone's W. The Sarkozy portrayed here (Denis Podalydès) is neither the Napoleonic blowhard from the French editorial pages, nor the Machiavellian uber-fixer suggested by the American media, nor the lovesick swain who appears first onscreen. Instead, he's all three!
Durringer's film caused a stir at Cannes for its lack of controversy; and the distributor is indeed trying to sell it as a galvanic saga of betrayal and corruption—but rest assured, the juciest stuff happens between scenes. The political life is an icy labyrinth of on-the-fly decisions, forced smiles, and unspoken attitude shifts. Despite exchanging volleys with on TV with President Chirac (Bernard Le Coq) and endless jousting with his in-party rival Dominique Villepin (Samuel Labarthe), Sarkozy tended to get his way in the aughts—first as Minister of the Interior, then as Chirac's hand-picked leader of the UMP, then in the 2007 election. (It's suggested here that Chirac cunningly chose Sarkozy for the UMP spot to muzzle him—giving a bitter edge to his presidential victory.) Screenwriter Patrick Rotman gives all three men some ferocious one-liners, but his dialogue never smells like Aaron Sorkin's self-underlining agit-pap poindexterism.
The biggest emotional thorn in Sarkozy's side is also his closest confidante, his wife Cécilia (Florence Pernel). His careerism gives her a grass-is-greener mindset; their children appear in exactly one early scene. Just like that, the film is tidy, grown-up and anti-sensationalist, despite its thesis that Sarkozy's ambition cost him the luxury of a healthy personal life. It's a much more behavioral, 21st century breed of actors' movie; there are no gratuitous helicopter shots of French landmarks, scant video clips of popular unrest, no operatic monologues, debate scenes or furniture-obliterating showdowns. In the film's most heartbreaking (!) sequence, Sarkozy self-effacingly woos a vivacious young journalist. After all, his wife has left him for some event-planner prick, so... why not? Soon, however, it becomes clear that despite the sincerity of their first encounter, the candidate has figured out how to use her as political collateral to get Cécilia back—if only for the crunch-time cameras (and only temporarily, though Carla Bruni doesn't figure here). Podalydès demands scrutiny: at first he's all wincing and mugging, but the holy fool setup allows him to unfurl his own brand of realpolitik one scene after another.
Opens November 11