Film Still Courtesy of Music Box Films
The bold French movie “The Conquest” is a rarity — a feature film with the guts to criticize the sitting head of government of its own country. Britain’s “The Queen” dared critique both Prime Minister Tony Blair and Queen Elizabeth II in 2006 while both were still in power, just as Nanni Moretti’s 2006 film “Il Caimano” (“The Alligator”) skewered Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. But this is usually the role of documentaries, and aside from a few exceptions, “The Conquest’s” story about the rise of Nicolas Sarkozy to France’s presidency is almost unprecedented.
Denis Podalydès is uncanny as Sarkozy in Xavier Durringer’s fast paced film, perfectly capturing the strutting politician’s look and mannerisms. He expertly portrays the former Interior Minister, nicknamed “Sarko,” as a brash backstabber, relentless in his climb to power. Whether clashing with political rivals, Arabs rioting in France’s suburbs, or his wife Cecilia (Florence Pernel), Podalydès’s Sarkozy is blunt, brutal and ruthless. His rightwing politics are correspondingly mean spirited.
With Podalydès’s virtuoso acting and Patrick Rotman’s insightful script, Sarko is depicted as a crude, burger gobbling arriviste with the table manners of a slob, who is looked down upon by the French establishment. The key to Sarkozy’s character is revealed as the candidate practices a speech in an empty convention hall, describing himself as the son of a Hungarian immigrant, whose grandfather was a Greek Jew. As such, he is the grasping outsider who has had to fight and claw every inch of the way.
His detractors include members of the same conservative government he serves, such as the suave, tall, classically handsome Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin (Samuel Labarthe) and the smooth President Jacques Chirac (Bernard Le Coq). Behind his back, these quintessentially continental leaders ridicule Sarkozy as the “runt” and “midget.” Still, they have no reservations about using the shrewd, gloves-off politician when it’s convenient for them. But in the end, like Napoleon — another short outsider — Sarkozy outwits the sophisticated elitists.
As the ambitious schemer plots and campaigns for ever-higher office, he cleverly deploys a former Communist Party speechwriter to woo the French left while unleashing an electoral scheme akin to Nixon’s “Southern strategy” to steal votes from extremist candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen. But as he faces off in the battle of his lifetime against Socialist presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, Sarkozy’s long suffering wife Cecilia almost upends his hopes by threatening to abandon him. Cecilia, who has been there during Sarko’s unstoppable 20-year march to power, sees through him, and wants out. Pernel’s poignant performance provides the film’s touchstone and its emotional core. Like “Citizen Kane,” citoyen Sarkozy wins the whole world but loses his own soul.
Largely told through flashbacks, “The Conquest” ends with, well, Sarkozy’s conquest of power. Since then, the French president has replaced Cecilia with a flashier, younger model, Carla Bruni, with whom he recently had a baby. But it remains to be seen how the fate of this modern day Napoleon will play out. In the meantime, in “The Conquest” they do to the reigning Sarkozy what Michael Moore dared do to George W. Bush in his 2004 documentary, “Fahrenheit 9/11”: tell the truth.
Watch the trailer for ‘The Conquest’: