No Compromises, by Jack Fleischer
Billed as an exacting account of French president Nicholas Sarkozy’s ascension to power, The Conquest (La conquête) is a solidly entertaining biopic. The motor of this film lies less in the machinations of the French political machine, and more in the secrets of Sarkozy’s love life. By examining the French President’s political career through the lens of his relationship with second wife Cécilia, we’re being given a raw glimpse into the heart of a die-hard politician. Think of it as the dramatic, true-to-life French version of The American President.
The credits open against a black background with the roar of crowds, the babble of newsreaders, and the flash of camera bulbs, setting up the story as a comment on the celebrity status of modern politics. We see Sarkozy as he anxiously awaits word on his wife’s whereabouts on the day of the French Presidential elections. She needs to accompany him to the polls, voting together in a public show of unity. The movie then unfolds in flashbacks, leading up to this moment, and the film finishes with his first public appearance after winning his bid for President.
Before we proceed, you need to know that anyone has the potential to appreciate this film, even if you don’t know French, French politics, or even what a French person is. Much is explained in a completely organic way through this movie. That said if you watch the news, you probably already know some of the high points in this film. Specifically, (spoilers) Sarkozy is the current French President, and recently he became the first French President to father a child in office (ahem) with his wife … who is not the same wife featured in this movie. In other words, this is not a love story that ends on a happy-happy-smooch-smooch kind of note.
I went into this film knowing little about French politics, and while I couldn’t tell you the intricacies of the Jacques Chirac or Sarkozy presidency, I never felt that I was being left behind. True fans of “Sarko” will get an entertaining look at his rise, including a behind the scenes look at the aftermath of one of his more famous moments on French TV. When asked whether he thought about the presidency when he shaved in the morning, Sarkozy commented suggestively, “Not just when I shave.” Another great scene actually has Sarkozy awkwardly imitating the clichéd “romantic-comedy airport” scene with a full security team in tow.
The majority of this film’s success comes out of the performances. Florence Pernel as Sarkozy’s wife Cécilia is both sympathetic and subtly cruel. Samuel Labarthe’s Dominique de Villepin, Sarkozy chief political rival, is both delightfully stuck up and convincingly lacking of charisma. Lastly, Denis Podalydès’ portrayal of Nicolas Sarkozy as a Napoleonic, brutish, burger munching, Jaque-six pack French patriot who just wants a fair shot in a land of high nosed giants is fantastic. I want him to win, I want him to beat up his opponents, and I also want him to wake up to what is going on with his wife as he looks to conquer France. Where a film like W. tends towards cartoonish imitations, all of these people seemed very real and very true.
There are points in the film where I feel like knowing the real events and people would have increased my appreciation, but I will say that this movie feels “right.” It doesn’t seem like it slavishly adhered to the real story at the price of entertainment. The screenplay, co-written by Patrick Rotman (who claims the title of “historian”) claims that the film’s dialogue and material comes from “impeccable sources.”
The score is dutiful, and the cinematography isn’t grand, but there are a few well-composed postcard type shots, which almost seem to reflect the compact grander of the film’s hero. All in all, it combines to make a delicate package.
The real Nicholas Sarkozy once said, “When there’s a misunderstanding, one must make a compromise. This word is not a bad word.” The Conquest carries strong themes of compromise in politics, compromise in love, and asks its characters to weigh the value of all this compromise. Yet most interestingly, it seems to eschew compromise and unblinkingly capture reality as drama in a truly entertaining way. It makes me long for more movies based on the lives of real French political figures.