For generations, French presidents have filled a nearly sacred role. They act as an embodiment of their republic’s lofty ideals, and they exude such judiciousness and serenity that they often end up seeming oddly otherworldly.
And then there’s Nicolas Sarkozy. The fast-talking president could go toe-to-toe with Chicago’s feisty incoming Mayor Rahm Emanuel in a political street fight — and finagle the United States into a war of choice with Libyan dictator Moammar Kadafi. Woody Allen recently remarked to the French newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche that he could imagine casting Sarkozy in a Joe Pesci-like tough-guy role.
The contrast between Sarkozy and the French presidency is part of what makes the looming release of the French political thriller “La conquête” (The Conquest) so intriguing. The biopic, which will premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May — less than a year before France’s next presidential election — is highly unusual. French filmmakers have never produced a realistic drama about a sitting president. “This film is a first; it isn’t in our traditions,” says Stéphane Rozès, a political scientist and media expert.
The French have a rich history of mocking their leaders, both in the press and on television, especially the satiric “Spitting Image"-style show “Les Guignols,” in which politicians are portrayed with puppets. (The brief, nightly show often portrays Sarkozy as a tough but insecure street thug-turned-nouveau riche president à l’américain.) But France has never had its “West Wing” (on television or celluloid) that might suck nonpolitical junkies into the drama facing those exercising power.
“La conquête,” directed by Xavier Durringer, focuses on Sarkozy’s remarkable rise to the presidency in 2007, especially the intense political and personal drama he overcame to get there. (A film teaser includes a character calling Sarkozy “manic depressive.”) A core question of the seemingly well-crafted film, based on extensive research, is: Will the fast-rising Sarkozy explode in midair?
Details that have emerged about the film make clear that it may eliminate what’s left of an array of 20th century French taboos. For one, filmmakers here have only in recent years taken to harvesting the Romanesque drama of modern presidents. The modern presidential biopic arrived with director Robert Guédiguian’s “Le promeneur du champ de Mars” (2005), which focused on François Mitterrand’s inability to impart any overarching lessons to an idealistic young leftist during the final stages of his presidency and his life. A made-for-television film, the compelling “Mort d’un président,” which aired in April, portrayed President Georges Pompidou’s final year as he hid a terminal illness, believing it to be for the good of the nation, before dying in office. The differences is that these portrayals were made, not just after the presidents were out of power, but after they were dead.
By contrast, “La conquête” deals with living history. It takes aim at the most media-driven candidate and president France has ever known, at the height of his power, and as he prepares to launch a difficult reelection campaign.
French media have long shied away from sharing well-known secrets about the private lives of politicians. But a key drama in this film focuses on the disintegration of Sarkozy’s second marriage, to Cécilia, who was also one of his closest political advisors. In fact, the film is being sold as “the story of a man who won power but lost his wife.”
A nearly two-minute trailer for “La conquête” includes a scene in which a forlorn Nicolas leaves a self-pitying phone message for Cécilia, who has fallen in love with another man. Another scene shows her embracing her lover in the doorway of a jet. And in yet another, Cécilia tells Nicolas that he doesn’t need her anymore; he has the presidency. (The Sarkozys reunited before France’s brief official presidential campaign and then divorced soon after he was elected. Later, , he married model-turned-pop star Carla Bruni.)
In many ways, Nicolas Sarkozy himself has made this film possible. He has worked hard to shatter his nation’s presidential mystique, which descends partly from the era of kings. That much was clear when a perspiring new president in workout clothes bounded up the stone stairs of the Élysée Palace before news cameras after a hearty jog.
The film’s trailer shows a 21st-century president, who is by all credible accounts egocentric, manipulative, coarse-tongued, petty, frenetic and stunningly insecure — and he is such an unfiltered force that he can’t hide such characteristics for more than a short time. In one scene, Sarkozy is the anguished dilettante, storming out of a meeting in a huff, as he says: “Don’t forget, I’m a Ferrari — when you open the hood, you do it with white gloves.”
While the producers of “La conquête” have said that it was a great challenge to gather the $7-million-plus budget for this “hot potato” film, they did not experience any political interference in making it. And the Cannes Film Festival recently issued a statement debunking reports suggesting that the presidential palace had exerted pressure in relation to the programming of the movie.
The actor who portrays Sarkozy suggested last fall that one element of the subject matter is likely to show the current president in a poor light. , “What can appear harsh, cruel even, is the comparison between what was said during the campaign of 2007 — what the candidate Sarkozy proposed — and what we see today,” Denis Podalydès told the French news agency Agence France-Presse. The absence of follow-through on campaign promises is, of course, most detrimental, just before an incumbent makes new ones.
Author Denis Tillinac says Sarkozy’s installation of an American-style 24/7 campaign-driven presidency, in which private and political elements all blur together in perpetual coverage, made this film inevitable.
“This country once had Napoleon, Joan of Arc, De Gaulle,” says Tillinac, who has known Sarkozy for many years. “Now we are interested in politicians as though they are pop and movie stars. It is reality TV politics. It is something from Hollywood, not from our culture. And Sarkozy is the best at it.”
Rozès put it in other terms: “Sarkozy is an American-style president, so we can make an American-style film now.”