Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Conquest (La Conquete)

A Failing Marriage As Political Football In France

Denis Podalydès as Nicolas Sarkozy and Florence Pernel as Cécilia Sarkozy in Xavier Durringer's film "The Conquest". 
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Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
ay, January 8, 2012

The turbulent, scandal-ridden last few years of the Nicolas Sarkozy-Cécilia Sarkozy marriage are the center of Xavier Durringer's re-imagined final days of their relationship in "The Conquest", which opened in additional U.S. cities on Friday.  More a tragicomedy or satire than a drama, Mr. Durringer's film captures a fine performance from Denis Podalydès as Mr. Sarkozy, a Napoleonic figure awaiting his climb up the political ladder in France to the presidency.  He'll have to wait his turn, however.

Beginning in the early 2000s and ending in 2007, "The Conquest" unfolds in documentary style, chronicling the rise of a self-centered, arrogant and lonely man, dwarfed by his own sense of largess and forthrightness.  The film is two stories: one about Nicolas Sarkozy's rise to power, highlighted by the tension and rivalry with then-French president Jacques Chirac's foreign minister and prime minister-in-waiting Dominique de Villepin (a fine performance by Samuel Labarthe); the other about the charade of unity in public as the Sarkozy marriage disintegrates behind the scenes. 

Cécilia (Florence Pernel) has had enough of her husband's fakery and extramarital affairs and wants out while campaigning for the presidency ensues.  Nicolas entreats her to stay with him until after the election is over.  Cécilia is made an advisor by Nicolas, who recklessly says the first thing on his mind and is despised by some members of his inner circle.  Mr. Sarkozy, a right-wing politician, doles out platitudes to his "Commie" speechwriter and dismisses Villepin's sincerities with biting honesty.  This president-to-be knows how to spoil a party! 

As wickedly rendered by Mr. Podalydès, Nicolas is alone and unhappy, and knows it.  Trapped, there's little wiggle room for him in his personal and political life.  Nicolas journeys to power but at the cost of a hollow victory.  At the same time his personal life renders him a powerless figure.  Cécilia holds the cards and keys to Nicolas's political survival, and she's the real power broker in determining whether and how soon he will ascend to the presidential throne.

Written by Mr. Durringer and Patrick Rotman, "The Conquest" (La Conquete) chronicles a smart if sometimes staid and pedestrian story about the structure of politics and the wheels of power in France.  There's a containment and distance in the film that the director either wants us to absorb or asks us to travel where Nicolas is concerned.  Numerous shots of expansive space, figures in the distance, isolated and remote reinforce the satirical aspects of the mania of politics, power, king-making and one-upmanship.  The film's prime weakness lies principally in its lack of energy, and while some of the dialogue is enjoyable several scenes lack enervation or any spark.

Lined with all-around fine performances, including by Bernard Le Coq as Mr. Chirac, "The Conquest" is an entertaining look at what power does to one's sense of self, and a reminder that reality in politics is yesterday's news.  Perception is the constant breaking news story, and always what counts, and Mr. Durringer gives us dual perspectives in many scenes; before and after moments in the same frame after Nicolas exits.  The most telling shots are with Nicolas plowing through throngs of admirers at political rallies with the disdainful Cécilia just inches away, going through the motions in order to barely keep up appearances.  The kisses Nicolas plants on the face of his outgoing wife may as well be kisses blown in the face of a gale force wind.

Do we ever know who Durringer's Nicolas Sarkozy really is behind his marital strife with Cécilia, or his pitched battle with Villepin, or in his quest for title of France's most powerful man?  He always looks like a game show contestant, not a finished product of success.  It appears that Nicolas is a figment of his own imagination, a self-created image that sinks into an exalted nothingness.  The film's final shot reveals an illusion or mirage-like image that sums up the transparency of indulgence, of power's appetite and its slender rewards.  He's there, albeit tenuously, though he's been there all the time, but only in his own mind.  This emperor's clothes haven't been thoroughly tailored let alone worn.

With: Hippolyte Girardot, Mathias Mlekuz, Grégory Fitoussi, Pierre Cassignard, Saïda Jawad, Dominique Besnehard.

"The Conquest" is not rated by the Motion Picture Association Of America.  The film is in the French language with English subtitles.  The film's running time is one hour and 45 minutes.

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