Review: ‘The Conquest’

"Dare I say, The Conquest is a mite bland."

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

When I really love a film, it's fun to write about. I get to gush and froth and sputter about how wonderfully elated the film made me feel. If the film is not so popular, I see my review as a chance to spread the good word on a piece of art that seems to be hiding in the shadows. When I hate a film, it's still fun to write about because (and I may be one of the only critics to openly admit this) it can be fun to lose your cool, and gouge into something that you're passionately hateful about. Rifling through my own psychic thesaurus for synonyms for “awful” can be a good time for everyone.

But now I'm faced with Xavier Durringer's new French political thriller The Conquest, and I feel a bit at a loss. It's rare that a film that is about such pertinent recent politics can give me no rise. I saw the film as perfectly competent, possessed of some rather good performances, and touching on some everyday political hubris that we all need to be reminded of, but also as leaving little to no impression. Perhaps it's because I'm not French, and my experience with Nicolas Sarkozy has been through his outsize personality and his various scandals, rather than his actual politics. But I saw this more as an exercise in filmmaking than a stirring drama. Dare I say, The Conquest is a mite bland.

The bulk of the film is told in flashback, as we see Nicolas Sarkozy's ambitious and no-nonsense rise to power. Sarkozy is played by the insanely prolific actor Denis Podalydes, and he is given a stern, almost Richard III-like sense of propriety. Sarkozy will not glad hand, and he will not take lower cabinet positions just because Jacques Chirac (Bernard le Coq) thinks it's a good idea. He is not one to smooth things over. He is one to smash and grab and talk openly about his politics. By that same token, though, he's also quick to spurt out his own egomaniacal fantasies. “Don't touch me!” he was reported to once actually say. “I'm a Ferrari! You open the hood with white gloves!” This line is actually in the film. The other politicos around Sarkozy think little of him, and his victory to the presidency in 2007 was a big surprise. His central opponent for the office, Dominique de Villepin (Samuel Labarthe) referred to Sarkozy as “the dwarf” (Sarkozy is 5'5”), as he himself was a tall, handsome and gregarious politician.

A film like this, though, can't just dully catalogue recent history and still stay interesting, so the filmmakers insert, perhaps correctly, a personal conflict for Sarkozy. During his campaign his wife Cécilia (Florence Pernel) left him for another man, and he started seeing another woman. The two didn't properly divorce until years later, causing a mild scandal. From what I understand, though, the French people didn't mind the marital troubles too much. After all, didn't the French invent infidelity? The Conquest, however, blows up this rift in their marriage into an angsty side drama for Sarkozy, whose easily wounded pride needed Cécilia by his side, even though he knew their marriage was over. This was all before Carla Bruni.

It was kind of fun seeing Sarkozy overact in the halls of power, and see his unlikely rise to fame, and, like I said, Podalydes was excellent in making the president into a Shakespearean creature of ambition. There was something mildly soap-opera-ish about the affair that I enjoyed. But, sadly, overall, The Conquest didn't manage to break into a higher realm of melodrama, nor an important plane of actual political commentary. Oliver Stone's bafflingly fair-minded W. was more passionate than this.

This review is short. You can make your own short joke here.