Jacques Chirac (Bernard le Coq) and Nicolas Sarkozy (Denis Podalydes)… (Music Box Films )
His opponents, and there were many, mocked him as the midget, the dwarf, even the Premature Gesticulator. But when he was elected president of France on May 6, 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy got the last laugh on everyone. Or did he?
It is the premise of "The Conquest," a smart, involving and strikingly adult drama about Sarkozy's rise to power, that the politician simultaneously gained the office of his dreams and lost the love of his wife and key advisor.
As directed and co-written by Xavier Durringer, "The Conquest" broke new ground in its native country. Though it is very much in the tradition of such English-language films as "The Queen," "W." and "All the President's Men," it's the first feature to be written about a French president while he was in office, with the real characters' names used.
And though "The Conquest" is careful to start with a disclaimer reading "this film is a work of fiction based on real events and people," the French were quick to cut to the chase. When that sentence flashed on the screen at the film's debut in Cannes, the audience erupted in laughter and applause.
That real-world verisimilitude and the film's insider glimpse into the highest levels of French politics meant a lot over there. But the good news for American audiences who might not be up to the minute about overseas governmental affairs is that familiarity with the real figures is not at all necessary to enjoy this tasty entertainment.
Rather, what powers "The Conquest" are the classic virtues of tip-top drama: great characters, cracking dialogue and fine acting choreographed by a director with extensive experience in theater as well as film.
First among equals is the veteran French actor Denis Podalydes, who immersed himself in Sarkozy material and donned an elaborate wig that took 1,200 hours to construct to play the French president. It's an exceptional performance that allows us to feel like we are watching reality rather than pastiche while capturing the brio and energy that won over the voters of France.
Sarkozy is introduced early in the morning of that May 6 election day, in what should have been the high point of his life, the culmination of a 20-year quest for power. But the man's mood is clearly bleak, distraught: his wife, Cecilia, has left him and he has no idea where she is.
It is the business of "The Conquest" to fill in those blanks, to flash back and forth between that day and the events of the previous five years that led to both Sarkozy's political triumph and his personal debacle.
Those flashback events start in April 2002, when Sarkozy is called in for a meeting with French President Jacques Chirac, who tells him that instead of the prime minister job he wanted he's being appointed interior minister. Masterfully played by Bernard Le Coq, Chirac is one of the film's joys, a bemused and urbane man who is such a deft political operative you want to count your fingers after shaking hands.
Once he gets over the shock of deflated opportunities, Sarkozy decides to make the most of his situation. Ably advised by Cecilia (a convincing performance by Florence Pernel), he decides to be everywhere at once, a media-centric official who will, in his wife's words, "create news and comment on it, be both actor and director."
"The Conquest" shows Sarkozy to be a natural politician, never at a loss for confidence or words no matter how dire the situation may be, something his main political rival, the handsome silver fox Dominique de Villepin (Samuel Labarthe), finds very difficult to deal with.
In private, Sarkozy can be difficult as well, a man with a temper who gets increasingly cold and controlling, a state of affairs that Cecilia finds more and more problematic. "I'm a Ferrari," he snaps to his staff. "You open the hood with white gloves."
"The Conquest" never judges Sarkozy, it merely presents him, reserving its harshest critique for the circus-like atmosphere (emphasized by Nicola Piovani's jaunty Felliniesque music) modern politicians have to operate in. By the time Sarkozy says "politics is a stupid job done by smart people," we don't need any convincing.