American cinema has a long history of films that delve into the compromises of politics and depict ethically shaky lunges for power, frequently drawing on real people and real events. Xavier Durringer’s The Conquest (co-written with Patrick Rotman) transfers the template of the American-style insider-y political drama to present-day France, dramatizing the rise to power of current French president Nicolas Sarkozy. Denis Podalydès plays Sarkozy as a shrewd hustler, willing to change his positions for the sake of a vote, and perpetually catching his political opponents unprepared with his habit of telling them exactly what he’s thinking, without the usual sugarcoating and glad-handing. Bernard Le Coq plays Sarkozy’s presidential predecessor, Jacques Chirac, who seems genuinely fond of his upstart protégé, largely because he fully expects Sarkozy to fall on his face eventually. And Florence Pernel plays Sarkozy’s wife Cécelia, who gives him valuable advice on how to appear more youthful and engaged, then almost wrecks his political career when she leaves him for another man.
Durringer and Rotman frame the story through the Sarkozys’ tumultuous marriage, which doesn’t have the humanizing effect they may have intended; the details of the president’s private life come off as speculative (and overwrought), especially in contrast to the political material, which is largely drawn from official records and first-hand reports. The Conquest also leans too heavily on the usual methods for conveying complicated historical information, such as montages of helpfully explanatory news reports, and scenes where characters casually discuss political strategy as though they’re bantering about the weather. Durringer and Rotman don’t exactly Gallic-ize the genre, in other words.
But that familiar approach also sometimes works to The Conquest’s advantage. The movie never adopts a scandalized attitude toward Sarkozy’s ruthlessness; though Durringer and Rotman’s view of their subject isn’t particularly kind, their film is matter-of-fact when it shows politicians rehearsing for interviews, or posing happily for the press in public while they hiss at each other in private. The Conquest offers that familiar thrill of being allowed to peek behind the curtain and see what our leaders are really like, and while it’s more rote than revelatory, that may be because the American way of wielding power—and telling stories about it—has gone global.