CANNES Q&A: 'The Conquest' Director Xavier Durringer


The filmmaker discusses the challenges of making a movie about French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite … and Durringer. French director Xavier Durringer has caused “la scandale” in the French republic with his new film The Conquest about President Nicolas Sarkozy’s rise to power. The Out of Competition title follows Sarkozy from 2002 to 2007 as he gains a seat in office, but loses a wife in the process. The Conquest is the first time in French history that a President still in power is the subject of a film and will premiere in Cannes the same day its released in Gaul. Durringer spoke to THR’s France Correspondent Rebecca Leffler about daring to make a politically-incorrect film, his first time in Cannes and the chances he’ll run for President in the next French election.

The Hollywood Reporter: How was this project born?

Xavier Durringer: The screenwriter, Patrick Rotman, started writing the film even before Sarkozy was elected president. He decided to write something about the conquest of power. I received the project three years ago from Nicolas and Eric Altmayer of Mandarin and we started working on the screenplay when Sarkozy had just been elected President of the Republic and was at the top of all of the polls.

THR: Was it tough to get funding for the project since, in France, film funding comes mostly from the TV networks which are dependent on government subsidies?

Durringer: That was the big question. We had no TV channels on board except for Canal Plus. Gaumont came on as producer and distributor and we had the Sofica funding from the banks, but no network wanted to touch the project. That in itself says a lot. It’s the first time a film has been made about a president still in power so of course there were fears. We had to make this film independent of TV channels, which in France is very rare.

THR: Why do you think this is the first time in France anyone has dared to talk about a politician still in office on the big screen?

Durringer: For multiple reasons. First of all, there are laws about personal protection so it’s rare to see a politician criticized. Normally, according to the law, there’s a judicial problem with calling people by their real names. Films have been made alluding to the president, but this is the first time all of the politicians are represented with their real names. There was a real change after 2002 in terms of the mediatization and starification of politicians. All of a sudden, Sarkozy had cameras following him everywhere. Today, we treat politicans like we treat Johnny Hallyday or Johnny Depp. Politicians have a desire to show everything, so why not make a film about them?

THR: What is the meaning of the film’s title The Conquest?

Durringer: There’s a double meaning. First, the conquest of power at the UMP party and how Sarkozy had to fight his colleagues inside the party so that it was him running for President. He wins the political conquest, but he loses the feminine conquest in that his wife leaves him. It’s hard for a President to be single – that’s never happened.

THR: What were the challenges of making a film about someone still alive and still in power?

Durringer: It’s not a biopic – it’s not a whole life, just the period from 2002 through 2007. It’s not a film about Nicolas Sarkozy – it’s a film about political conquest. It’s a Shakespearean expression, where we have all the elements of a drama, both political and personal at the same time. The decors and the costumes are all based on real photos – I wanted to be as close to reality as possible. Nicola Piovani’s theatrical music gives a distance that’s almost Chaplinesque, there’s something quite funny. There’s no imitation, no caricature, no parodie – it’s realism with a distance where the dialogues are often quite funny.  

THR: Comedy, yes, but also a bit of film noir? The scenes of Sarkozy and his entourage appear to be right out of that genre.

Durringer: Absolutely. Like in a film noir, there are body guards with guns, huge cars, a big entourage of men in suits, secret meetings and when politicians talk on the phone, they put their hands over their mouths so no one can hear what they’re saying. These are two universes that are very close.

THR: Why Denis Polyades for the role of Sarkozy?

Durringer: First, we were in talks with another actor, but he pulled out for personal reasons. Then, once we had a production, we held a casting. We put wax into his hair because he’s balding and, within just a few seconds, the character of Sarkozy was there in the room with us without imitation or caricature, just in the way he said the words. At that moment, we knew we could make the movie. Nicolas Sarkozy is a character we see every night on TV. And Denis, thanks to his intelligence and experience playing princes and kings, was perfect for the role. He also has an incredible charisma and ability to make people laugh. In a few seconds, he makes us forget Nicolas Sarkozy’s real face

THR: Many of the characters are familiar faces, especially to French viewers. How did you want them represented on the big screen?

Durringer: This was problematic for Villepin, Cecelia and Jacques Chirac — we know them all, so the actors had to all act in the same way in order to portray them. If some actors were more realistic and others bordering on caricature, that would have been imbalanced. It would be as if we saw an airplane in a 3 Musketeers movie. We tried to work without special effects — just a wig for Sarkozy, that was all. We really just relied on the ability of the actors to breathe their characters to life. I’m very, very happy with the ensemble cast — Hippolyte Girardot as Claude Gueant, Bernard le Coq as Jacques Chirac, Gregory Fitoussi as Laurent Solly, Samuel Labarthe as Dominique De Villepin, Saida Jawad as Rachida Dati and of course Florence Pernel as Cecelia. They are absolutely incredible.

THR: So is most of the dialogue in the film based on reality?

Durringer: Most of the dialogue is true, but we had to reconstruct it, of course. The basis of what is said and the way the characters talk are true. Whether they are French or American, all politicians have three ways of expressing themselves — the intimate dialogue that can often be violent and raw, then the dialogue in front of the camera and then big public speeches. In the film, we see all of these different levels.

THR: Has Sarkozy seen the movie?

Durringer: No, Sarkozy hasn’t seen the film. We’ve closed the movie completely — it won’t be seen by anyone, even politicians and the press, until May 18th. He won’t see the movie in a theater I’m sure, but he’ll see it.

THR: Is there a sequel in the works?

Durringer: For the moment, it’s not foreseeable, but with the upcoming elections, there will be many stories to tell. We’ll need to see what happens in the next campaign.

THR: This will be your first time in Cannes. Are you nervous?

Durringer: It’s my first time ever in Cannes. For me, the pressure I had on my shoulders was heavier when I said, ‘Yes, I’ll make this movie.” The moral engagement was bigger. Now, this is a big chance to present this film at a place so prestigious as the Festival de Cannes.

THR: Are you prepared for buzz and scandal surrounding the movie in Cannes?

Durringer: I’m ready for all forms of dialogue about the film. There will be a lot of political talk, but I don’t think the film itself will be scandalous. For the French, there are so many emotions relating to Sarkozy and politicians in general that I think the film will generate a lot of passion, whether it be negative or positive. Above all, it’s a fictional film. It was important not to make a documentary and to really pay attention to the images. From the choice of the actors to the mise en scene, the film is completely cinematographic. It’s not just a boring political movie. The political buzz surrounding the Cannes screening is great for us. It’s political to make any film, but I want to be seen essentially as a filmmaker.

THR: Who are you looking forward to meeting in Cannes this year?

Durringer: Robert De Niro. More than an icon, he’s one of the best actors of all time. Of course, I want to meet him. I’ve seen all of his movies, I hope he’ll see at least one of mine! I love Sean Penn and his sense of political engagement, plus he’s a magnificent actor. And Terrence Malick, too. It’s going to be sublime this year in Cannes — filled with people who live for the cinema not by the cinema.

THR: How do you want Cannes viewers to feel when they leave the theater after seeing The Conquest?

Durringer: I want them to want to talk about it. I want the dialogue to start after the movie. The cinema is there to leave a trace. I hope my film leaves a trace and that it will open a door for French cinema and that tomorrow other directors will make political movies. The job of a filmmaker today is to talk about the world surrounding him and, through his movies, to both entertain and raise questions about modern society.

THR: This film will hit home to French audiences, of course, but did you have international audiences in mind when making the film?

Durringer: Of course the point of view foreigners will have of this film isn’t the same as the French public. What will interest American and international audiences is the love story between Nicolas and Cecelia that’s a metaphor of today’s occidental couple, namely the women in the shadows who carry their husbands into the spotlight, but the man is so absorbed with work so the woman leaves him for another man. Foreigners will see another story within the story. The storyline with Cecelia is very Romanesque and shows that these characters aren’t neutral — they lives with tumultuous passion. The film will be seen on many different levels and the American point of view is always more technical. The French are less technical — it’s ‘I like it, or I don’t like it.’ I hope that this film can have a life in the U.S. — it’s the grand country of cinema. I grew up with Hollywood movies, so for a French director to have a film distributed in the U.S. is a real opportunity.

THR: Any plans to run for President?

Durringer: Certainly not. I’ll leave that to the politicians. My work is as an auteur. This isn’t a militant film, but it is a moral engagement. It shows the interior mechanisms of power — we’re like little mice observing everything and, at the same time, laughing a little bit.

Xavier Durringer Vital Stats
Film in Cannes: The Conquest, Out of Competition
Nationality: French
Born: December 1, 1963
Selected Filmography: Chok-Dee (2005), J'Irai au Paradis car L'Enfer est ici (1997), Heads Above Water (1993)