French politics in general and the ascent to power of current President Nicolas Sarkozy in particular are presented as a tragicomic circus act in “The Conquest.” Pic takes genre helmer Xavier Durringer (“Chok-Dee”) back to his theater roots, with most of the narrative mayhem and laughs coming from pic’s sharp dialogue and strong work by seasoned thesps, who just manage to avoid caricature. A straightforwardly dramatic counterpoint that explores Sarkozy’s marital woes is almost lost in the political melee. Cannes preem date coincides with its local release; beyond Western Europe, this will be more of a curiosity item.
Opening with a statement detailing that, though inspired by true events, the film is a work of fiction, “The Conquest” is the sort of work for which it’s impossible to predict local reactions, much less its influence, if any, at the polls when Sarkozy will be up for reelection next year. However, the fact the politician’s father confirmed a long-rumored pregnancy of Sarkozy’s current wife (and bit player in Cannes opener “Midnight in Paris”), Carla Bruni, the day before “The Conquest’s” bow at least implies that he’s as media savvy as the film suggests.
Neither an involving, deeply human story, like such Peter Morgan-penned political dramas as “The Deal” and “The Queen,” nor a bombastic and more cerebral exploration of a politico’s life and reach, a la Paolo Sorrentino’s “Il Divo,” “The Conquest” falls somewhere in between. “Politics is a stupid job done by intelligent people,” remarks the fictional future President (Denis Podalydes), and most of the film seems to illustrate this notion, though intelligence here more often than not equates to ambition and a certain ruthlessness.
Pic charts Sarkozy’s life between the reelection of previous president Jacques Chirac (Bernard Le Coq) in 2002 and fellow center-right partymember Sarkozy’s successful 2007 bid for the presidency. During this period, his professional life is on the rise, as Sarkozy lands appointments to various ministerial and party posts, all the while trying to curry favor with the aloof Chirac, whose ratings problems caused many cabinet shuffles. The politico also has to maneuver around and outwit various opponents, including the glib Dominique de Villepin (Samuel Labarthe).
Scenes of political plotting and in-chamber conversations dutifully tick off the cases in which Sarkozy was (possibly) embroiled; as conceived by Durringer and co-writer-historian Patrick Rotman, these bits are never boring. Played at a more-than-slightly exaggerated pitch, their dialogue, full of one liners and sardonic wit, helps bring out the inherent ridiculousness of these power games. The tragicomic effect is further amplified by Nicola Piovani’s circus-like music, which is heavy on percussion and brass instruments.
While Sarkozy methodically plots his way to the top, his private life seems to be headed strictly downhill. As unhappy then-wife Cecilia (Florence Pernel), who doubles asone of his advisors, threatens to leave him, this strand is played in a more straightforward manner, with strings dominating the score.
Though Durringer uses the day of the 2007 presidential election, when Cecilia failed to show up to go voting with her husband, as a structuring device, this more compellingly human story of a failing marriage is ultimately buried by the snowballing political events — something not helped by the fact Cecilia’s presence and, increasingly, her many absences are strictly viewed from a p.o.v. close to her spouse.
The real-life French president never made a secret of wanting to become one, and this kind of raw honesty and drive is expertly portrayed here by Podalydes (“Nothing Personal”), who delivers on the public figure’s mannerisms and voice, as well as his charisma (whenever the cameras are on) and occasional cantankerousness (when they’re not). His scenes with the privately foul-mouthed Chirac, played by Le Coq in equally fine form, strip the French political machinery of any mystery or elegance. Though it’s hard to say how much truth these scenes contain, they certainly prove diverting in all their theatricality, even for those without much knowledge of French politics.
The film’s look and setting are plush, and costume design and widescreen lensing are also solid.