An inside look at French President Nicolas Sarkozy

Political bio pics are certainly not a rarity, but making a film about a country’s leader while still in office is pretty brave, which is probably why French director Xavier Durringer wisely puts a disclaimer at the beginning of “The Conquest,” saying that while his film is based on real events and people, this is a work of fiction.

But that doesn’t mean this film about current French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s rise to power strays too far from the facts. Meticulously researched by screenwriter Patrick Rotman (who had previously made documentaries on Mitterrand and Chirac), “The Conquest” is a fascinating insight into Gallic politics, and Sarkozy’s story makes for irresistible drama.

As he sits waiting for his election results on May 6, 2007, he is alone, brooding and depressed as he frantically tries to reach his wife Cecilia. While he should be celebrating his proudest victory, his wife and ally of 20 years isn’t standing by her man; she’s run off with another.

It’s this interplay of ambition and loss that is the crux of “The Conquest.” Spanning a five-year period from 2002 when Sarkozy was still a bit player to the newly elected second term of Jacques Chirac, to his ascent to the presidency, it shows Sarkozy as a smart operator intent on power. He makes tactical moves up the political ladder like a chess game and manipulates the press to his side, by exposing his so-called “transparent” life, or as his wife dismisses, “I feel like we are on a reality show.”

While an arrogant Chirac (played by Bernard Le Coq) and his fellow politicians berate their colleague with insults, calling him runt and dwarf, in the end they are incapable of cutting him down to size as he outmaneuvers all of them. The only person who does belittle him is his wife Cecilia (Florence Pernel), who leaves him mid-campaign for an advertising executive. But instead of ruining his chances for election, it seems to humanize him to the public. (And while the film doesn’t show it, we all know Carla Bruni is waiting in the wings.)

Like Michael Sheen’s uncanny resemblance to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, actor Denis Podalydes is a doppelganger for Sarkozy, adding dimension to a wordy script that could have otherwise made him seem merely boorish and egomaniacal.

“The Conquest” doesn’t have the zing of a “West Wing” or the polish of a film like “The Queen,” and it is obviously aimed at an audience with a familiarity for French political players and the daily headlines that played out. Still, it provides an intriguing insight into a current world leader, and the machinations of politics in any language can be understood by all.

KATHERINE TULICH has written about film for more than 20 years. A Sydney, Australia native, she was the film critic and feature writer for the Sydney Morning Herald, Australian correspondent for the Hollywood Reporter, and a guest critic on “At the Movies” with Ebert and Roeper. She can be reached at

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