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Review: ‘The Conquest’

Sex And Politics

Denis Podalydés as Nicolas Sarkozy in

Credit: Music Box Films

Above: Denis Podalydés as Nicolas Sarkozy in "The Conquest."

"The Conquest" (opening January 13 at Landmark's Ken Cinema) is being touted as a treat for political junkies as it follows in the footsteps of "The Queen," "Frost/Nixon," and "Il Divo."

"The Conquest" opens on May 6, 2007, as the French people prepare to go to the polls to elect a new president. We find presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy (Denis Podalydés) sitting alone and seeming far too dejected for someone who has just won the election. He tries repeatedly to call his wife but to no avail. Then we see the last 5 years of Sarkozy's life unfold -- it's an ascent to power filled with political back-stabbing, media manipulation, ruthless ambition, and marital woes. It's soap opera laced with witty and sometimes biting humor.

The story of the diminutive, right-leaning French politician has been brought to the screen by playwright Xavier Durringer. Based on real figures, Durringer's film makes no pretense about reinventing them for his own purposes. He reportedly used public documents and first person accounts from which to draw material but presents his film as a fictional account of real people. In that respect it differs from recent British political biopics ("The Queen," "The Iron Lady," "The King's Speech") that approach their material with a certain reverence and respect for history. What gives "The Conquest" a little edge is the fact that it was made while Sarkozy was still in office.

"The Conquest" is a kindred spirit to the recent Italian film, "Il Divo," that chronicled the life of Guilio Andreotti. But while "Il Divo" served up the drama, spectacle, and flamboyance of a great Italian opera, "The Conquest" is more like "The West Wing" played out as French farce. It's a mix of sex and politics but perhaps not in the way you might expect. It gives us an insider view of politics in a media age, and serves up some very clever and sharp writing. Its view of the machinations of a political campaign recalls both "The Candidate" and "In the Loop," and as such we often find ourselves laughing but then catching ourselves as we realize the absurdity is sometimes scarily close to reality.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Music Box Films

Denis Podalydés as Nicolas Sarkozy and Florence Pernel as his wife Celia in "The COnquest."

Denis Podalydés bears a limited resemblance to the real Sarkozy but the actor captures the nervous energy that won the French politician the nickname of "The Energizer Bunny." Florence Pernel, with her calm elegance, makes a sharp contrast as his wife Celia, who spends decades aiding and pushing her husband in his rise to power only to abandon him as he reaches the top. (Sorry, that might be a spoiler to anyone not familiar with the real story.)

Durringer's film is not nearly as cinematic or opulent as "Il Divo," but it moves at a fast pace, doesn't require as much knowledge of foreign politics, and keeps us engaged in both the marital melodrama and the political satire. Sarkozy is a bit like Shakespeare's "Henry V" but without the kingly stature. But both political leaders are men dealing with creating and presenting an image to the public. Henry is something of a modern politician for his time, and Sarkozy is a modern media candidate capitalizing on photo opps and TV cameras to create and present a carefully groomed candidate and making him appealing to the masses. Henry may be the better leader but Sarkozy knows how to spin the media.

"The Conquest" (in French with English subtitles) is a savvy, energetic, and highly entertaining film.

Companion viewing: "Il Divo," "In the Loop," "The Candidate"

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