THE CONQUEST is excellent and timely biopic - which is shaping up to be a theme for my movie watching lately. Originally reviewed for dvdsnapshot.
The Conquest is that rare specimen produced while its political subject is still in power. Denis Podalydès delivers a witty yet commanding portrayal of Nicolas Sarkozy and his rise to the French presidency through the lens of his unraveling marriage to wife Cecilia (Florence Pernel). This vivid film depicts the future president of France as a bold and unashamed virtuoso of political combat. Brilliantly etching sharp characterizations of living politicians, The Conquest never veers too far from reality, even while deploying a larger-than-life sense of humor and a buoyant, Fellini-esque score that giddily evokes a circus-like atmosphere of modern politics.
Films about politics are always a strange breed, taking you behind the headlines while usually positing that their subjects are amoral monsters behind those shellacked, calculated smiles. Power and celebrity are sexy, but fame derived from elected authority always seems suspect. Perhaps because of the hunger required to throw your had into the ring? We always assume the best man for an office is the one too smart and decent to run. The best political stories also emphasize those pulling strings and smoothing feathers to keep the political machine on track. It's the wives and advisers (Eve Carringtons and Iagos?), usually far more Machiavellian than the candidate himself. This film isn't a political fiction, though dramatic license was taken.
The Conquest is a flashy account of Nicolas Sarkozy's political rise to the Presidency of France in 2007 contrasted with the bittersweet disintegration of his second marriage. Hitting DVD right before Sarkozy lost his 2012 bid (oddly and perhaps unintentionally foreshadowed in one scene), and knowing he'd remarry (following a whirlwind romance) soon after his election, it's a fascinating look at a man known to many perhaps more for those public upheavals of his personal life than the leadership of his country. He's depicted here as an honest and driven man, never hiding his motive to become President. Wife Cecilia proves as shrewd a political calculator as her husband, and gets a fair shake here. She's played as a complicated, intelligent equal partner in the job of “politician” who, after a simple change of heart, becomes a begrudging public prop. (She'd make a great subject for a film in her own right.) Denis Podalydès disarms with a shuffling walk played against his gravelly, near-surly speeches. He and Florence Pernel create a believable dynamic as this power couple evolve. It's criminal these actors are not better known to American audiences.
Starting with Mr. Sarkozy feeling resentment to only be appointed Minister of the Interior instead of Prime Minister, he starts a five year journey of doing what all good politicians do; positions himself as the most visible politician in the country who isn't (yet) the President. The political conflicts come from Jacques Chirac, who holds the job, and Dominique de Villepin, shown as Sarkozy's main rival for all political jobs. Living life like a Reality TV star, dubbed here the “Premature Gesticulator,” Sarkozy wastes no time in gunning for the big job... and showing the strain of a life lived in front of cameras. In the quest for the presidency his marriage also changes, depicted as evolving from authentic partnership to an act of political expediency.
If you're unfamiliar with French politics, don't worry. You may not recognize the names, but the maneuvering is universal. The film keeps a brisk pace, especially for one that's mostly dialogue scenes. Details and references constantly propel the story along. Frequently depicted are meetings with President Chirac and lunches with Villepin that dependably benchmark developments in Sarkozy's career. Intelligent storytelling across the board, the closest thing to a stumble made here is the introduction of Cecilia's affair. As a modern symbol of infidelity, cell phone abuse lacks a certain dramatic sizzle. (Likewise, I wonder if Sarkozy's mid-film adoption of cigars is supposed to be as heavy-handed a representation of his heart's becoming coarsened during the acquisition of power as it comes across?) The Conquest is an easy recommend for politics junkies and fans of real-life tales recounted with energy and flare.
Audio is offered in French 5.1 Dolby Surround and 2.0 Stereo with optional English subtitles. The excellent score is very well served in this regard. The handsome, clean cinematography makes good use of the Widescreen format here, as well (though one glaringly awful moment of digital compositing throws you completely out of the film). The only extras are trailers and a 34 minute behind-the-scenes documentary, “The Making of The Conquest.”
Even if you have no familiarity with French politics, The Conquest is an absorbing and bittersweet depiction of the career of President Sarkozy and the marriage that didn't survive the rise to that lofty office. The carnival of public life and chess matches of government grab you through energetic storytelling and excellent actors playing very real, flawed characters.