Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri May 20, 2011 7:50 am 
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Poster for La Conquête (Xavier Durringer 2011)

La prise du pouvoir par Nicolas Sarkozy (apologies to Rossellini)

Variety's Boyd van Hoeij wrote that Xavier Durringer’s La Conquête/The Conquest, which debuted at Cannes 2011 out of competition and came to Paris cinemas a few days later, presents "French politics in general and the ascent to power of current President Nicolas Sarkozy in particular" as “a tragicomic circus act,” with the director returning to his theatrical roots by presenting a drama reliant on "sharp dialogue" and good performances by a "seasoned" cast who “just avoid caricature.”

This seems to me somewhat an exaggeration, as regards the tone of the film. Maybe it’s true as Von Hoelj asserts that this film can't be spoken of in the same breath with The Deal, The Queen, or Il Divo. It hasn’t that kind of sweep or style. But La Conquête is a handsomely mounted production and the action holds your attention. You might do better to think of Aaron Sorkin’s TV series "The West Wing." The dialogue (like Sorkin's) is fast and sharp indeed, and there are some funny and many -- for a French audience -- chuckle-inducing moments, but this is quite straightforward political drama based pretty closely on fact. It is not comprehensive but it blends the personal and the political all the way through. Metaphorically French politics may emerge as a “circus act,” but caricature is really at a very safe remove. The result may not play terribly well in the States, simply because the intricacies of French party politics are too unfamiliar, but the story of an underdog with immigrant roots running for office in an “anything is possible” vision of the future campaign and winning over aristocratic and snobbish competition strikes cords of sympathy for an American viewer. Sarkozy’s appeal to the right and to anti-immigrant factions are underplayed.

What’s initially fascinating about La Conquête is that it’s a depiction of the rise to power of a French president made and presented on the screen while that president is still in office. It’s hard to imagine a similar film being made about Obama by Hollywood right now while he's in his first term and shown in movie theaters. The key factors are Sarkozy’s underdog status and the marital struggle that wore him down and endangered his political chances. It’s clear in this film that such luminaries as then president Jacques Chirac (played by the high-and-mighty Bernard Le Coq, whom Americans may remember from various films, including those of Chabrol) and Dominique de Villepin (whom athletic, silver-maned Samuel Labarthe makes regal and gleefully competitive) show unmasked contempt for Sarkozy and continually dismiss him as not real competition, yet Sarkozy of course feels he has the presidency in his blood and is determined to get it.

Sarkozy is a little guy and seems humble and a bit awkward around the aristocrats. This isn’t a negative picture but it’s far from hagiography. Perhaps the film fits into the "any publicity is good publicity" idea, since, as von Hoelj also remarks, Sarkozy's father’s revelation of Carla Bruni's pregnancy was geared to coinicide with this film's Cannes sidebar opening. The fine cast includes some splendid character actors: Denis Podalydes, Hippolyte Girardot, Samuel Labarthe, and others. Podalydes is excellent and looks quite Sarky-esque.

To go back to Von Hoelj, he claims that “a straightforwardly dramatic counterpoint that explores Sarkozy's marital woes is almost lost in the political melee.” That was not my impression. It’s quie clear that Sarkozy’s “marital woes” threaten his push to become president. A close advisor tells him that he must either get his wife back or marry someone else before he enters the presidential palace. The failure of the marriage as the career triumphs is the emotional heart of a film that otherwise is rather cold and tacktical. Sarkozy wants to share his victory but Cécilia Sarkozy (Florence Pernel), who agrees to appear with him for elections, turns away coldly, and it is lonely at the top. He has met Carla Bruni, but she is not yet part of his life. Von Hoelj estimates that “beyond Western Europe, this will be more of a curiosity item." That’s a shame if true, because this is one of the best and most realistic movies about jockeying for political ascendency that I’ve seen. It certainly feels important and bold seen in its French context, in a varied Paris audience that watched with evident pleasure. Maybe the French just know how to laugh at their leaders better than Americans do – even though those leaders are largely a grand and elegant bunch who move in regal surroundings. Ultimately though the the history and the tactics are interesting, more sense of human warmth is needed.

La Conquête was released in France May 18, 2011, and shown at Cannes out of competition that day. A critic for Les Inrockuptibles wrote, "Not a great film, but it fulfils its unstated promise: to provide a credible portrait of our President." Screened for thie review in Paris May 2011, this film is scheduled for limited US release November 11, 2011.

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