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Xavier Durringer’s La Conquête, or The Conquest, is France’s answer to The Social Network, a hot-off-the-presses biopic about a man who transforms his society. Both films depict nervous, ambitious outsiders who sublimate their personality dysfunctions into the world around them. Just as Social Network had much to say about geeks and techno-entrepreneurs, The Conquest shows us the rarefied world of presidential politics.
The Conquest portrays the rise of Nicolas Sarkozy to the French presidency, but only begins during his predecessor Jacques Chirac’s term. In other words, it lacks back-story. The story isn’t so much about the rise of Nicolas Sarkozy as the dramatic struggle between Sarkozy, Chirac and Sarkozy’s rival Dominique de Villepin. It’s also very much the story of Sarkozy’s troubled marriage with his second wife Cecilia (played by Florence Pernel).
Durringer (known as much for theatre as cinema and TV) directs the movie with deft elegance. The script is also first rate, its dialogue evoking a play by Molière or Marivaux, with only the occasional heavy-handed clunker. Each scene smoothly leads to the next, not really dramatized according to the classic three-act structure. This lends a documentary touch and reinforces the frenetic Sarko rhythm. Only the music score doesn’t feel right—it veers from comic jauntiness to soupy orchestral melodrama.
The film’s casting is inspired. All the actors manage the inflections and tics of their characters so well the film risks becoming an impressionist show or live-action version of the current-events puppet show Les Guignols de l’Info. Denis Podalydes, one of France’s outstanding actors, transcends caricature to probe Sarkozy’s character. Bernard Le Coq convincingly mimics Chirac’s mix of avuncular slickness and occasional vulgarity. Samuel Labarthe portrays Dominique de Villepin as the film’s villain, a Little Lord Fauntleroy grown up into a genteel, deliciously arrogant sociopath. (It’s a letdown when he seems to abandon the presidential race prematurely.)
Although there are many characters (all excellently played) the film has a claustrophobic feel—it’s really a story of palace intrigue and could have been staged as a play. We never see the opposition, neither Socialists nor National Front. Neither is there a sense of an EU or international dimension (for example, how the Iraq War boosted Chirac and Villepin). The riots that tested the French government, and Nicolas Sarkozy, are treated as details rather than the most serious domestic security crisis since ’68.
Unsurprisingly, the French presidential system isn’t explained for foreign audiences. Neither is it delved into for the benefit of the home audience. For example, the way the two-round electoral system can scramble expectations: in the first round there are numerous candidates splitting the electoral pie, and the French electorate often votes in surprising ways. This gave us Jean-Marie LePen in the second round in 2002. This is only briefly alluded to when Villepin threatens to run in the first round to act as a spoiler.
The movie doesn’t really dig into the depths of the Sarkozy marriage. Why is he so attached to her, and vice versa? How does the marriage develop? What did Cecilia really feel? Of course, many of the answers lie beyond the purview of the film, in the characters’ family origins. Sarkozy was raised by a single mother who became a lawyer, clearly a psychological precursor of his hard-driving second wife.
The film also doesn’t dig into the roots of Sarkozy’s troubled Oedipal relationship with Chirac. It’s common knowledge that Sarkozy at one time dated Chirac’s daughter and was treated as a member of the family (until he no longer had any use for her). Later, when then-prime minister Edouard Balladur announced his candidacy for the presidency, Sarkozy abandoned Chirac to join Balladur (although heavily favored, he lost to Chirac).
If The Conquest isn’t the character study or political analysis we would have liked, it does tell a quintessentially French story. Narratives of the outsider clawing his way to the top go back to Stendhal’s The Red and the Black and Balzac. The film is also a comedy of manners, sending up the patrician airs of the French elite and the vulgarity of the arriviste Sarko. Just as the American upper-middle class couldn’t abide Richard Nixon for cultural reasons, Sarkozy’s lack of manners and culture sticks in the craw even of those who vote for him. For the French the most telling moment has to be a luncheon scene when the future president has the temerity to decline wine.
The film reverberates outside itself, for those us who follow French politics. The film deals with the Clearstream affair that nearly scuttled Sarkozy’s chances—we know that later the scandal struck Villepin. Likewise, references to money machinations bring to mind Chirac’s current legal problems. But everyone who knows even a little about French politics will watch the portrayal of the Sarkozy marriage and think of the ultimate (apparent) happy end—Sarkozy’s marriage number three to Carla Bruni.
View trailer, synopsis & more at site official website
Produced by Gaumont et Mandarin Films/Canal Plus
Distributed by Gaumont (US: Music Box Films)
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French Cinema [June 2011 release] was just added to our store . . .
Author Charles Drazin is a respected film critic & his book, FRENCH CINEMA, will become the definitive history of French cinema.The Hollywood model of cinema as mass-market spectacle—as entertainment rather than an art—is more dominant than ever, its box-office power amounting to an effective monopoly. France has been one of the most active countries to challenge this hegemony. A key motivation has been its sense of a distinct film tradition that has always provided the most sustained alternative model to Hollywood. Drazin examines France’s role as the inventor of cinema and its pivotal influence over the language of cinema across the past century. Along the way, he highlights the influence of Hollywood directors such as Hitchcock, Ford, and Hawks on Truffaut’s generation, as well as the impact of British directors such as Ken Loach and Mike Leigh on current filmmakers.
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