A brisk, fascinating chronicle of a pre–Carla Bruni Nicolas Sarkozy that time-shifts from May 6, 2007—the day he was both elected president of France and left by his second wife, Cécilia, for good—to the five years leading up to his victory, The Conquest illuminates how much the conjugal, the extramarital, and the political are entwined in French life. (See also: Dominique Strauss-Kahn, once widely considered the only man who could beat right-wing Sarko in next spring’s election.)
Less of a broad clown-show than Oliver Stone’s W., The Conquest still opens with this disclaimer: “Although based on real events and people, this film is a work of fiction.” No subscription to Le Monde is required to make out the major players, though some post-screening Googling might be necessary. (To save you the trouble: UMP stands for Union for a Popular Movement.) Sarkozy (Denis Podalydès), explosive, vicious, charismatic, and short—his main rival, Dominique de Villepin (Samuel Labarthe), delights in calling the five-foot-five politico “the midget”—nearly unravels after Cécilia (Florence Pernel), his most trusted adviser, announces she has fallen in love with the man hired to be his publicist. Humiliated, the wavy-haired, jogging Napoleon sulks before going on the offensive, pleading with, threatening, and texting—during meetings with Jacques Chirac (Bernard Le Coq)—Cécilia, who finally agrees to come back, but only to briefly resume her professional duties during the final months of the presidential campaign.
“Politics is a stupid job done by smart people,” Sarkozy says at one point. Aided by an excellent ensemble cast, director Xavier Durringer and his co-scripter, Patrick Rotman, don’t refrain from showing this truly repellent side of Sarko during his rise from minister of justice in 2002 to the highest elected office: the ugly (though mutual) competition with de Villepin to be Chirac’s favorite, his brutality toward Cécilia, including one scene when he slaps her and calls her a dumb bitch. (Curiously, some of Sarkozy’s most noxious ideological beliefs and statements, particularly those regarding immigrants, are only alluded to.) But we also queasily admire his genius for working the crowd, as when he magically charms a nonbelieving factory worker. And we can sympathize—up to a certain point—with an egomaniac who has been crushed by abandonment. Who knows, Sarko and Cécilia’s knotty situation might have helped him work out a strategy for dealing with the woman with whom he now has the most complicated relationship of all: Angela Merkel.