For what are presidents remembered? From films, we know John F. Kennedy through the Cuban missile crisis, his assassination and the conspiracy theories surrounding it. Richard Nixon is immortalized by Watergate. If a feature were made about Ronald Reagan, then Iran “Contra Gate” would have to be at the center. For George W. Bush, it would be the lead up to and the war in Iraq. Even Jimmy Carter could get some drama out of a script that put him in the midst of the Iranian hostage crisis.
The life and career of Nicolas Sarkozy, the current president of France, lacks such dramatic events. Yet that lack of big, overarching historical context is precisely what makes The Conquest, the new French film by Xavier Durringer interesting. Here is the pettiness of politics. As he rises to power, Sarkozy comes across as a two-bit political operator -- in Chicago political terms, kind of a ward boss -- in the Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine.
In France, the production of the film was over-boiling in hype. Teams of lawyers had to vet the script for fear of legal retaliation. The film ends before real-life Sarkozy divorced his wife Cecilia - a character in the film - and before he went on to marry Carla Bruni. During the production, Bruni said she was "worried" about the film, but Sarkozy said that he would rather undergo psychoanalysis than see himself in the film. For a moment, Sarkozy dominated the world stage by his early support for anti-Qaddafi forces in Libya and by sharing the stage with German chancellor Angela Merkel during the European economic crisis. But in terms of pure cinematic drama, he was upstaged in real life by the scandal surrounding the arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, his political rival for the French presidency. Larger-than-real-life, unimaginable in any script, aced out cinematic imagination.
For Xavier Durringer, the drama in The Conquest lies in the characters. Sarkozy is short, he measures five feet five inches. His main political rival, the slick, white-haired Dominique de Villepin, called him "the midget." His ambitious political career almost unravels when his most trusted adviser, his wife Cecilia, tells him that she has fallen in love with the man who was hired to be Sarkozy's publicist. After pleading and threatening, she agrees to come back, but only to help work during the rest of his presidential campaign.
Much of the film focuses on the backstage intrigues and machinations which finally lead to Sarkozy scheming his way to become his party's nominee, with Jacques Chirac playing the kingpin. But throughout the film, Sarkozy's rise to power comes from his skillful manipulation of his image -- he plays French politics "the American way." He is obsessed with physical fitness and is a runner. Undoubtedly some of this relentless drive comes from the need to counter self-image issues stemming from his short height. But he is also sharp enough to take the cameras along, and mold his television persona. The film is fictionalized, but, Durringer says, the events are 70 percent real.
Durringer says that Sarkozy "isn't from the traditional political mode. He is somebody who really has emotions close to the surface and you can tell by the way he moves his body, (that) he has a kind of child-like quality. He twitches and moves before he is going to make a speech, and the fact that he is extremely short undoubtedly caused him to have certain self-conscious issues." Indeed, as "real" as Sarkozy portends to be, he exploits every situation and comes across as an actor desperate for a larger stage and audience. In one scene in the film, as Sarkozy works with a writer to polish a script, he says, "I want sweep, I want passion. I have to make them want me."
The Conquest, as a film, comes across as a well-crafted television drama, which is distinguished by a truly awesome performance from Denis Podalydes as Nicolas Sarkozy. Podylades is a prolific and immensely talented actor, director and comedian – much too-little appreciated outside of France. He nails Sarkozy's every gesture, nuance and tick with seamless precision.
But it is our cynicism about our political systems -- not just in France, but everywhere -- which keeps The Conquest from being more than a mild amusement. The idealism we would need to have to be surprised and shocked by Sarkozy's actions no longer exists. Sarkozy, the politician, seems just as vain, ruthless and driven as politicians everywhere. That is not a tragedy of Sarkozy's character, but the tragedy of every democracy in the 21st century.
Milos Stehlik is the director of Facets Multimedia. His commentaries reflect his own views and not necessarily those of Facets Multimedia, Worldview or WBEZ.