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Sarkozy's 'Conquest': A Politico's Path To Power

<strong>Ruthless <em>Peuple:</em></strong> Denis Podalydès (third from left) portrays a scheming Nicolas Sarkozy in <em>The Conquest, </em>a drama about the French president's rise to power. <em></em>
Emilie de la Hosseraye
Music Box Films
Ruthless Peuple: Denis Podalydès (third from left) portrays a scheming Nicolas Sarkozy in The Conquest, a drama about the French president's rise to power.

In the lead-up to its release in France, The Conquest, a semi-satirical biopic about Nicolas Sarkozy's breathless ascent to power in 2007, gave off a carefully calculated air of scandal. Producers touted it as an unprecedented profile of a sitting president — a political hot potato — and leaked juicy Sarko one-liners such as, "I'm like a Ferrari. You open the hood with white gloves on."

Yet the "scandal" was mitigated almost entirely by Sarkozy's disapproval rating, which had climbed to more than 70 percent before the film's premiere at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. For the president's critics, the gloves were decidedly off.

Pitched somewhere between irreverent comedy and sophisticated political chamber piece, The Conquest takes the form of intimate Peter Morgan back-room dramas like The Queen or Frost/Nixon, but adds a zesty Aaron Sorkin-style spin. It winds up working at cross-purposes: The irreverent comedy rarely has the bite it needs, because the film also strives for verisimilitude. It wants to be a credible study of real-life figures, devious party machinations and the sad dissolution of Sarkozy's marriage, but keeps goosing up the action with cartoonish behavior and a score — by three-time Federico Fellini collaborator Nicola Piovani — that presses a jaunty circus-of-life theme.

At its center, however, Denis Podalydes is uncannily good, playing Sarkozy as nasty, brutish and short, a man so consumed by ambition that he becomes almost pitiable in his narrow-minded obliviousness. With sharp eyes and a hair-trigger temper, Podalydes' Sarkozy doesn't have the patience for diplomatic niceties, and his conversations tend to cut brusquely to the quick. Here's a man who recognizes that politics is a blood sport — revels in the fact, really — but isn't given to backstabbing his adversaries when he can gut them from the front. In a way, that candor makes him more sympathetic.

The Conquest takes place over the five-year period from Jacques Chirac's election to a second term in 2002 to Sarkozy's own successful presidential bid in 2007, when he led the center-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) over Socialist Party contender Ségolène Royal. As Chirac, played as arrogant prig by Bernard Le Coq, starts to fall out of favor with French voters, Sarkozy successfully manipulates the president into giving him prime leadership positions in his frequent Cabinet shake-ups.

Rather than playing nice with fellow UMP bigwigs like Chirac and Dominique de Villepin (a wormy Samuel Labarthe), Sarkozy undermines them in the press while snapping up jobs as minister of the interior (twice) and minister of finance, finally becoming leader of the party itself.

Throughout Sarkozy's brilliant campaign to the top, his wife Cécilia (Florence Pernel) serves as his shrewdest and most trustworthy adviser, but even she can't tolerate his narcissism forever. And it's here where the film goes furthest astray: Director and co-writer Xavier Durringer uses election night 2007 as a framing device, showing a frantic and desperately lonely Sarkozy fuming over Cécilia's absence. Beyond the embarrassment of not having his wife by his side at the voting booth, there's the sting of disloyalty and betrayal, too, all of which Durringer pitches as Shakespearean tragedy.

The contrast between the mournful framing story and the zany political jujitsu of Sarkozy's rise to power throws The Conquest off balance and ultimately makes the emotional fallout of his success seem false and unearned. Watching Sarko steamroll his even-more-unctuous rivals has its pleasures, but how can this outrageous creature of raw ambition also be treated in such sobering terms? The Conquest tries to have it both ways.

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Scott Tobias is the film editor of The A.V. Club, the arts and entertainment section of The Onion, where he's worked as a staff writer for over a decade. His reviews have also appeared in Time Out New York, City Pages, The Village Voice, The Nashville Scene, and The Hollywood Reporter. Along with other members of the A.V. Club staff, he co-authored the 2002 interview anthology The Tenacity Of the Cockroach and the new book Inventory, a collection of pop-culture lists.