Sarkozy fiction pulled from fact
By John DeFore
Friday, Nov 18, 2011
One senses wary footsteps from the opening frames of "The Conquest," where titles self-consciously introduce it as "a work of fiction" despite it having been based (as media notes boast) "entirely on public documents and first person accounts."
Such are French libel laws that one doesn't lightly slap "this is a true story" on the portrayal of another person, especially if that person is Nicolas Sarkozy.
While filmmakers Xavier Durringer and Patrick Rotman still manage to achieve the ring of truth in their examination of the right-leaning president's rise to power, laying out the maneuvers and chutzpah with which he subverted boss Jacques Chirac's plans, they do it with little heat. Failing to find deeper meaning in their protagonist's crises, they tell the story in a way that will only hold the interest of those who already know it fairly well.
The movie's key attraction is not historical insight or narrative flair but acting. Prolific French actor Denis Podalydes uses a hairpiece but forgoes other prosthetics in his effort to conjure the politician, and he succeeds despite looking little like the man. Physically, Podalydes focuses on posture and gesture, energy and attitude, effectively pushing Sarkozy's actual face out of the viewer's mind for the length of the film.
Particularly in recurring scenes depicting Sarkozy's lunch meetings with rival Dominique de Villepin - any shot in which "Sarko" eats is a highlight - we sense how he inspired a fear and confusion in others that was disproportionate to his height.
Sarkozy says what he wants (and acknowledges others' motivations) plainly, unsettling those more comfortable with tact and subterfuge. Whatever the filmmakers think of his politics, they give us a protagonist we can't help but admire on some level.
They also, sadly, give us a surplus of dialogue about campaign strategy that never approaches the Shakespearean heights it has in mind. Spending most of their time on the years leading up to Sarkozy's presidential campaign, they watch as he makes the most of governmental posts he doesn't want ("If I'm not prime minister, I'll be the primary minister," he says when stuck as minister of the interior) and grapples with both Chirac (Bernard Le Coq, very convincing as a ruler whose era is fading) and de Villepin (Samuel Labarthe, a polished and proper foil for the star) in his effort to become leader of the political party Union for a Popular Movement.
Where the film might have found its greater meaning is in the interplay between Sarkozy's public and private lives - an especially fertile ground here, given that wife Cecilia (Florence Pernel) was a key adviser and their very public separation threatened his eventual run for president.
"The Conquest" returns throughout its mid-2000s narrative to 2007's election, showing the public controversy and imagining Sarkozy's behind-closed-doors response to it. But it never convincingly depicts the genesis of the couple's marital problems or how they led to this crisis.
This, it seems, is where fear of libel laws hobbles the film: Though Pernel communicates well with body language, Cecilia's pulling away from Nicolas is poorly explained in the script, not sold with the kind of lusty detail or private dialogues Shakespeare - and the tabloid press - would eagerly include.
Thus we get only the aftermath, as viewed by outsiders - popping flashbulbs at news conferences and a Fellini-esque musical score constantly reminding us there was a scandal to be followed here. But they do nothing to convey the human drama at its core.
Contains language unsuitable for the Elysee Palace.