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Catherine de Léan
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The Story of a Man who Wins an Election and Loses a Woman...
This is "The Conquest" in a nutshell, a film that takes an ironic twist on the good old "Behind every great man, there is a woman". And to those who still doubt the evidence, just take a look at the actual crisis that undermined the new President's image as a 'regular guy': everything went well for François Hollande until his partner sent a message against his ex-wife, and many detractors commented that a man who couldn't hold his woman couldn't hold France. Ironically, the same sentence is spoken during the film, by Dominique De Villepin, probably Sarkozy's most virulent rival from the same board.
Xavier Durringer's "The Conquest", if not revealing something revolutionary about politics' cruelty and nastiness, highlights the way the political arena was perverted by the fourth power. The media are accomplice of a system that valued presentation more than anything. where it's more about representation. The film is told in flashback, chronicling Sarkozy's rise to power from 2002 (Chirac's second election) to 2007 and is punctuated by brief shots of Sarkozy desperately trying to join his wife Cecilia. People don't elect ideas, measures, but men, representations, symbols and Sarkozy has so many flaws that he can't afford appearing as a man who's not loved by a woman, and only his control on some influential media prevent some embarrassing news from being rapidly spread.
Now, to those who asked, why such a film? And why in 2011, as if it would serve Sarkozy for the 2012 election campaign (if one thing, I'd think the opposite), I want to reply: "why not"?" Is it or is it not that the man was probably the least likely candidate to be even considered a president in 2002? The man who was infamous for having betrayed his all-time mentor Jacques Chirac in 1995 in favor of Edouard Balladur, the mayor of Neuilly, one of the richest quarters in the Parisian area. Chirac –who was not a political saint either- kept very hard feelings towards those who betrayed him, but nothing in the same intensity than for Sarkozy, and this shows quite well in the film. And Sarkozy not only cumulated many flaws, but there was something obviously opportunistic and untruthful in his behavior, and of course, his diminutive size didn't help.
"The Conquest" doesn't require such knowledge about Sarkozy's past of course, but it helps to set the tone of the film: here we deal with a politician who doesn't hide his ambition, who's the most resented of all and the perfect target for politicians' belittling comments, physically and morally. Yet his political brilliance and intelligence made him a necessary actor in the political field. Chirac must deal with him, and given this parameter, Sarkozy has to use all his power, all his intelligence to become the new President in 2007. Why a film about his ascension? Simply, because it works on a cinematic level, whether we like him or not, or know him or not, there's something appealing in the way this man does everything to accomplish his goal, while his opponents try to dwarf him or minimize his merits, they obviously failed but ironically, Sarkozy's victory doesn't feel as a complete one either.
I have my theory about it, Sarkozy is a man who enjoyed the idea of victory to prove himself he was capable to overcome all the adversity that poisoned his political career, even his life. But there's something missing at the end, he can't savor it with his wife, his pride is hurt. In a way, he still characterizes the "behind a great man" notion, because even in her absence, Cecilia was reminding him of his unfulfilled challenge. And ironically, it's the struggle to keep her, to win her heart back, that made the rest much easier. Despite all the attempts from Chirac, Villepin, the Opposition, Sarkozy swept them off with a political virtuosity, because the hardship was elsewhere. He embodies the idea of what "didn't kill you makes you stronger" where what made him stronger was not political.
But there's more in Sarkozy than a simple 'Napoleon Syndrome', (although some comedic parts highlight this), it's the chronicle of a man who acts for success, against the idea of losing, as he told Villepin, it's in his guts, he can't help it, and you can see that even his rival is convinced, that even Chirac admires him and he's reluctant to deal with him not because he hates him, but because the very idea of admiring him is more hateful to him. There's something light but generous in meanings in Xavier Durringer's film, it's very matter of fact film, it avoids many useless details and focuses on one central character and it's enough to entertain. Of course, it was victim of political interpretations in France, as if the film was a sort of publicity for Sarkozy's political campaign but now that the fever is off, I predict a cult-popularity to this little gem of biographical comedy drama. By the way, kudos to Denys Polyades in his perfect interpretation, and to Bernard LeCoq as his delightful impersonation of Jacques Chirac (although a bit over the top sometimes).
And besides the remarkable and very fun spot-that-politician cast, there's one element in "The Conquest" that –I'm sure- will not get unnoticed by some movie fans: the music. When I heard the score, I immediately thought of Fellini's films and their circus-like world. And "The Conquest" plunges us in the media's circus with the journalists as the ringmasters and Sarkozy embodying all the roles. Indeed, he's everything in the film, he carefully walks on the tightrope of his popularity polls, against Chirac and Villepin, he's a lion tamer in the right-wing party, he's the flamethrower who ignited the suburbs riots of course, he can even become a clown but aren't all those politicians , after all?
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