Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Sarkozy Rises: The Conquest

Imagine the hue and cry if Nancy Reagan had left future President Ronald Reagan during the 1980 campaign. Essentially, that is the spot current French President Nicolas Sarkozy found himself during his successful 2007 electoral run. The personal becomes the political in Xavier Durringer’s bio-drama The Conquest (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Sarkozy might have a host of faults, but he appears passionately devoted to his wife Cécilia. More than anything, it is his neediness that appears to drive his wife into the arms of another man. She picks a rather inopportune time to leave. Having groomed and prodded Sarkozy into a national political force, he stands at the threshold of presidency. Her absence is conspicuous and duly noted.

As the Sarkozy campaign charges forward, attempts are made to negotiate her temporary return. Divisions also open up between the pre and post- Cécilia wings of the campaign. Yet, Sarkozy appears to be a man of destiny, much to the disbelief of Jacques Chirac, his anti-mentor and presumptive predecessor.

Frankly, Conquest is surprisingly gentle in its treatment of Sarkozy. Granted, he is wildly ambitious, but that ought to be a given for any politician. He certainly never comes across exceptionally corrupt or immoral. Indeed, rather than paint him as a fire-breathing monster, Durringer pursues a strategy of winnowing him down in stature.

Though not bad physical likeness, Denis Podalydés shticky portrayal of Sarkozy does not jibe with the admittedly carefully controlled images we see of the French president on the news. While slight of build, Sarkozy can be a commanding presence, as when he demands Greece shut up and sign on the dotted line.

Conquest works best capturing the not-so behind-the-scenes maneuvering of Sarkozy’s rocky tenure in the Chirac government. However, it assumes a level of familiarity with Sarkozy’s policies, particularly his forceful response to the 2005 riots, which some American audiences might lack.

Blessed with screenwriter Patrick Rotman’s slyest dialogue, Chirac, the old corruptocrat, and his preferred successor, Dominique de Villepin, are like Conquest’s Statler and Waldorf, providing acerbic commentary on Sarkozy’s trials and triumphs. A well regarded French actor with a long list of credits, Bernard Le Coq also happens to be an absolutely spooky dead ringer for Chirac, beyond convincing when he kvetches with Samuel Larthe’s de Villepin.

All things considered, Sarkozy gets off rather easy in Conquest, especially compared to Oliver Stone’s embarrassing (to his admirers) W. For political junkies, it provides an interesting boots-on-the-ground perspective on a historic French media campaign and a considerable amount of attendant damage control. Still, many casual observers of French politics will be disappointed it does not address two obvious questions: how did Sarkozy manage to marry a supermodel on the rebound and just what was his leading Socialist rival doing in the Manhattan Sofitel earlier this year? Consistently watchable, despite a rather caricatured lead performance, The Conquest opens this Friday (11/11) in New York at Landmark Sunshine and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.