The Conquest (Music Box Films, NR)

film conquest_smYou may find The Conquest to be a political comedy-drama with high production values, a compact script, and some excellent acting by a veteran troupe of actors.


The Conquest, Xavier Durringer’s somewhat fictionalized version of Nicolas Sarkozy’s rise to power, will be a tough sell for most Americans. While it offers an up-close and personal look at the motivations of men who seek fame and glory in the political arena, it remains stubbornly specific rather than aspiring to a more general and philosophical look at their motivations and behavior. The Conquest does not aspire to Shakespearean heights (press notes to the contrary) but remains more on the level of a well-made movie of the week; if you don’t have an interest in European politics, you may well wonder why the characters on screen should command your attention.

On the other hand, if you instantly recognize names like Dominique de Villepin, know what it means to court the followers of Jean-Marie Le Pen, and were aware of Dominique Strauss-Kahn before that unpleasant business with the maid at the Sofitel in New York, then you may find The Conquest to be a political comedy-drama with high production values, a compact script, and some excellent acting by a veteran troupe of actors who achieve a remarkable resemblance to the real-life characters they play.

The Conquest begins in May 2007, as Sarkozy (Denis Podalydes, looking remarkably like Michael Sheen in his several portrayals of Tony Blair) is elected president of France. At his moment of triumph, however, all he can think about is reaching his soon-to-be ex-wife Cecilia (Florence Pernel), who left him after lending material support (as one of his advisers) in his rise to power. It’s hard to feel anything for the man, however, because he never seems to have viewed his wife as anything but a means to an end. Much of the film is occupied with the five years leading up to Sarkozy’s election, and after Cecelia leaves him for the first time, he exerts all the means in his power to get her back, not because he loves her, but because France would never elect a cuckold president.

Unlovely motivations are commonplace in The Conquest, and when Durringer and Patrick Rotman’s screenplay gives voice to the treachery, bickering, and personal vendettas of such notables as Jacques Chirac (Bernard Le Coq) and Dominique de Villepin (Samuel Labarthe), it can be a lot of fun. Merely cataloging the epithets (among them “the midget,” “the dwarf,” and “the magpie”), they apply to the height-challenged Sarkozy is a study in schoolyard nastiness, while Podalydes is at his best when giving full voice to Sarkozy’s apparently limitless arrogance and ambition. Unfortunately, we never get to know any of these characters on anything resembling a human level, so your enjoyment of the film will depend heavily on how interested you are in the subject matter it portrays.

The Conquest is a talk-heavy movie, and the alternation of conferences and walk-and-talk scenes can wear down even the most avid Francophile. Fortunately, the film also has several set pieces of real visual brilliance which emphasize the showbiz aspects of politics, while superb cinematography by Gilles Porte (the film was shot in Super 35mm CinemaScope) and impeccable production design by Xavier and Eric Durringer offer an alternative focus for your attention when the incessant chatter of the talking heads becomes wearisome. It’s hard to believe this film was made for only ð5 million—the expert re-creations of key locations, including the Élysée Palace, suggest a budget several times that high. | Sarah Boslaugh

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