The Conquest (La Conquete): Cannes 2011 Review

Cannes Film Festival
Sarkozy farce packs in a few laughs, but its message runs as short as its lead character.

Xavier Durringer’s highly anticipated chronicle of current French president Nicholas Sarkozy’s rise to power is an amusing yet lightweight political farce.

CANNES -- As if France didn’t already have one major scandaleon its hands, out comes The Conquest (La Conquete), writer-director Xavier Durringer’s highly anticipated chronicle of current prez Nicolas Sarkozy’s rise to power. But the Elysee should have little to fear from this amusing yet lightweight political farce, which adds nothing new to a story that most Frenchies followed closely throughout the five-year period ending on election day in May 2007. While local buzz will boost early ticket sales, outsiders will only take a passing interest in the squabbles that saw the Machiavellian “dwarf” take on a gang of “old farts” – these are the film’s words – as he barreled his way to Gaul’s highest office.

Kicking off with the caveat, “Although based on real people, this film is a work of fiction,” The Conquest functions entirely on the viewer’s pleasure in seeing many of France’s most famous contemporary political figures lampooned onscreen – an event which is quite rare in a movie industry that normally shies away from attacking its leaders head on, especially in works of fiction. (Perhaps France’s many public filmmaking subsidies have something to do with this… Va savoir.)

Yet while the scenario by Durringer and co-writer Patrick Rotman (L’ennemi intime) has a grand old time depicting all the conniving, backstabbing, and fork-pointing which are part and parcel of any electoral battle, it never cuts deep in the way that, say, Nanni Moretti’s The Caiman did when it portrayed the bludgeoning hypocrisy of Silvio Berlusconi’s media and political empire.

Perhaps there’s a reason for this: While “Sarko” is certainly despised by many, it’s mostly due to his bling-bling style, infamous temper, and tendency to run off his mouth in public. As for his politics, well, they’re skewed towards the right (in French terms), yet not always easy to pin down. And as Durringer shows how the man’s message is based purely on the latest poll numbers, the film glosses over any real commentary on the current state of French affairs, opting instead for a chatty, Grand Guignol spectacle that at times seems better suited for the stage.

Anchored by talented Comedie Française actor Denis Podalydes’ pitch-perfect imitation – he nails everything from the duck-like shuffle to the erratic hand gestures to the gruff speech patterns – the story cuts back and forth between the hours on May 7, 2007, which show Nicolas Sarkozy awaiting the results of an election he was sure to win, and the years leading up to that moment, which explain how he got there.

While a handful of subplots deal with inside politics only locals may care about, the narrative maintains two main lines: Sarkozy’s fight against president Jacques Chirac (Bernard Le Coq) and his dauphin, Dominique de Villepin (Samuel Labarthe), to capture the UMP ticket; and his troubled relationship with then wife Cecilia (Florence Pernel), who’s presented early on as a Lady Macbeth-like consultant, until she grows tired of the whole shebang and runs away with an advertising executive (Yann Babilee Keogh) involved in the party’s rock concert-style conventions.

Although the film tries as it may to demonstrate how the affaire de coeur impacted Sarkozy’s psyche (a shot of him wallowing in a dark room – with his aviator glasses – is meant to convey that), their relationship never feels like much more than the tale of two power-mongers who seem to have little actual love for each other. If Cecilia is meant to be to Nicolas what Erica was to Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network – another contempo biopic that is everything but farce – her betrayal doesn’t resonate in the same way, and like most events in The Conquest, it can only be taken so seriously.

Much more enjoyable is the behind-the-scenes chatter between Chirac and cohorts as they try to outsmart the rising candidate, who always seems to be one step ahead of them, working the media with a frenzy that these old school politicians can’t compete with. As the sleazy former president, Bernard Le Coq (Joyeux Noel) provides the film’s most laugh-out-loud moments, many of which involve the use of the term “balls” in various contexts. Such trash talking is finely matched by Podalydes (Le Mystère de la chambre jaune), who delivers a slew of one-liners with ease.

The dialogue-heavy film reveals Durringer’s roots as a successful playwright in the 80s and 90s, before he went on to direct a short and eclectic filmography that includes the gangster yarn, Bat out of Hell, and the kickboxing flick, Chok-Dee. Though much of the action involves people talking in rooms or moving cars, a few impressive Steadicam shots show Sarkozy making his way through roaring crowds as he takes the stage, conveying his rise to the top in purely visual terms.

Such moments are accompanied by Nicolas Piovani’s very Fellini-esque score, which only adds  to the overall feeling that what we’re watching, as one character explains, is the making of a clown in chief.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival,Official Selection (Out of Competition)
Sales: Gaumont
Production companies: Mandarin Cinema, Gaumont
Cast: Denis Podalydes, Florence Pernel, Bernard Le Coq, Hippolyte Girardot, Samuel Labarthe, Mathias Mlekuz, Gregory Fitoussi, Piere Cassignard, Saida Jawad
Director: Xavier Durringer
Screenwriters: Xavier Durringer, Patrick Rotman
Producers: Eric Altmayer, Nicolas Altmayer
Director of photography: Gilles Porte
Production designer: Eric Durringer
Costume designer: Jurgen Doering
Editor: Catherine Schwartz
Music: Nicolas Piovani
No rating, 110 minutes