Thursday, November 10, 2011

French Fried

Podalydes and Pernel in The Conquest
The Conquest
Directed by Xavier Durringer
Starring Denis Podalydes, Florence Pernel, Bernard Le Coq, Hippolyte Girardot
Released by Music Box Films; opened on November 11, 2011

Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2007 election as French president was a triumph for the diminutive politician, who overcame heavy opposition, even in his own party, to win a 53 percent majority and become leader of France. The Conquest, Xavier Durringer’s detailed dissection of Sarkozy’s climb to the top, presents him as a flawed hero who was nevertheless one step ahead of those hoping to prevent his inevitable rise.

The movie, cannily structured to maximize the myriad problems Sarkozy faced, opens on election day with the candidate alone and unable to track down his unhappy wife while absentmindedly thumbing his wedding ring. The movie then moves between that day’s momentous events and the highlights (and low lights) of the previous five years, as a determined Sarkozy begins his unlikely ascent.

Although, at this late date, there’s nothing earth-shattering about the events depicted--in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the movie was greeted with a collective shrug in France, where everything the movie shows was played out on television, in newspapers and on websites throughout the campaign--that’s not to denigrate Durringer’s achievement: The Conquest is a fascinating glimpse behind the curtain, and yet another reminder of the endless machinations, power plays and double dealings among politicians that seem necessary ingredients not only for winning an election but for a candidate’s very survival.

Where Durringer and co-writer Patrick Rotman show their greatest strength is in the central relationship between Sarkozy and his wife Cecilia, who stood by him during his ascendancy (and was one of his most trusted advisors) until the presidential election heated up, when she fell in love with Richard Attias, event organizer for the campaign, and left her husband. It’s especially enlightening to see Sarkozy’s pre-presidential family life in light of his very public marriage to his current wife, sometime actress Carla Bruni.

As played by the formidable Florence Pernel, Cecilia is elegant, handsome, intelligent and headstrong, all characteristics that help Sarkozy reach his lofty political goals. Interestingly, the candidate is never seen in a compromising position with any female, although he does flirt with a couple of reporters; still, Cecilia is never presented as a clich├ęd home wrecker, and Pernel’s warm performance humanizes not only Cecilie but Sarkozy himself.

While Bruno Podalyes only slightly resembles Sarkozy, he has the man’s mannerisms down pat--the bluntness and lack of grace, not to mention the wild gesticulations while speaking (in fact, he’s branded the “premature gesticulator” early on)--and by film’s end it’s as if we’re watching a documentary. The same evening that I saw The Conquest, I saw the real Sarkozy give a speech at the recent G20 summit and felt like I was watching a mere actor! But Podalyes gives far more than an impersonation: his natural, winning presence allows empathy for a driven politician called by his detractors names like Little Nick, Midget and Runt.

Among a stellar supporting cast, Samuel Labarthe perfectly conveys the slimy sophistication of Sarkozy’s old party adversary Dominique de Villepin, and Bernard le Coq looks so uncannily like President Jacques Chirac that it‘s easy to overlook his effortlessly charismatic performance.

As the president-elect walks up the stairs and away from the camera to give his first speech as France’s new leader, The Conquest ends at the moment of his greatest triumph--but there’s also a real question mark hovering over the genuine hoopla of this historic win, as if the filmmakers are warning the man to be careful what he wished for: and five years later, Sarkozy's conquest might end in a single term.

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