Tricky Nick

IT'S NOT YOU, IT'S ME: Nicolas Sarkozy (Denis Podalydes) explains to wife C–cilia (Florence Pernel) why he has the hots for Angela Merkel.

XAVIER DURRINGER'S The Conquest reiterates de Gaulle's idea that France is ungovernable—much like our own state of California. Snobbery may be the reason why this mordant film has it in for its protagonist. President Nicolas Sarkozy (Denis Podalydes) is known, as if he were a lost Marx brother, as "Sarko."

Sarko has foreign roots and displays Americanisms; he is filmed exercising, and he eats hamburgers. And The Conquest shares in the low fun people had in mocking a politician whose wife wouldn't stand behind him. "Who wants a cocu for president?" asks an observer. "If he can't hold on to his wife, how can he hold on to France?" asks another.

In telling of Sarko's rise, this juicy, fast and sarcastic film is down on all politicians. Maybe the most badly behaved is Samuel Labarthe's Dominique de Villepin. He's seen stroking his oar (on a rowing machine) in sweating, grinning ecstasy as he watches Sarko implode on TV. De Villepin and Sarko demonstrate politesse in public, though. Observe a genuine "After you, my dear Alphonse" incident as the two rivals try to figure out who goes through a door first.

As in Oliver Stone's Nixon, The Conquest's sympathy is reserved for the shameless man's spouse, in this case Sarko's depressed second wife, C–celia (Florence Pernel). The Nixonian parallels may be deliberate, since there's no real French cinematic tradition for Durringer's kind of muck-stirring. This Sarko resembles Tricky Dicky: the same rancor, swarthiness, snapping at the press and uncertain sanity. "He's not mad, he's just manic-depressive," explains Sarko's aide.

And just as poor Nixon was disavowed by Eisenhower, Sarko gets shivved by his boss President Chirac (Bernard Le Coq) on TV: "When I decide, Sarkozy executes." In French, as in English, the word "execute" has its smell of the guillotine. I've just read that Nixon broke a 68-year streak during which the tallest contender was always elected president. The Conquest reminds us Sarko is small but fierce. He is referred to by all as "the midget" and "little Nick." When a man says things like "I did not choose politics, politics chose me," it's probably fair to remind him he is a shrimp.

The Nino Rota–like soundtrack amps the amusement of watching this dirty limbo game, which defines politics as "a stupid job done by smart people."

The Conquest

Unrated; 105 min.

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