In its genesis, The Conquest, a docudrama on the flashy election campaign of French president Nicolas Sarkozy, wasn’t about Sarkozy at all. Indeed, it predated his rise entirely. Director/co-writer Xavier Durriger had always intended his film to be a general summary on how our Internet/24-hour-news network-besotted global village has turned politicians into celebrities. When Sarkozy rather unexpectedly became the far-right head of a famously chill nation, the project simply adopted him as its poster child. The film functions as blueprint: Learn how Sarkozy micromanaged, how he recovered from the public relations disaster that is his marital implosion and how he miraculously capitalized on his appalling remarks on the “suburban uprising.” The current stock of bumbling, would-be-Obama defeaters ought to buy a ticket and bring a notebook.
Resembling him more in height (or lack thereof) than in looks or charisma, Denis Podalydès plays the sitting French prez as a ruthless micromanager who, along with his equally driven second (and future second ex-) wife Cécilia (Florence Pernal), seeks to upturn not only his future predecessor Jacques Chirac (Bernard Le Coq) but his party in general. This is accomplished partly through savvy, partly through turning his life into a reality show. Cameras are at every event, even there to document the marriage that famously eroded and, even more famously, didn’t cock up Sarkozy’s image with voters.
Durriger pitches this somewhere uncomfortably between fact-based drama and satire. His film has been fact-checked to death then married to a fast pace, then fitted with a “fun” score that often takes on the carnivalistic glee of a Nino Rota score for Federico Fellini. That might be excusable if it wasn’t so satisfied with its tidy diagnosis. Like The Iron Lady, it’s afraid to take a firm side on its polarizing centerpiece, to really draw blood, and the result is a portrait that semi-inadvertently functions as apologia. Podalydès’ Sarkozy is borderline likable, nobly weary at the multitude hoops he has to jump through solely to adopt the nation’s shittiest job. British comic Armando Iannucci (In the Loop, the forthcoming HBO show Veep) does this stuff funnier, more insightfully and without the need to faux-humanize monsters. But in a pinch, this will do.