Xavier Durringer's The Conquest, a lightly fictionalized account of the rise to power of French president Nicolas Sarkozy, dwells in the backrooms of the Gallic political world, unfolding as a series of closed-door meetings, semi-public negotiations, and lots of private worrying. Essentially a geeked-out political procedural, the film is never less than wholly watchable, but even as it takes pleasure in imagining the wheeling and dealing that politicos make when no one is looking, it never offers as much insight into the process by which a president is made as its premise would seem to promise.
The chief executive in question is presented by the filmmakers and embodied by actor Denis Podalydès as a man of pure, ruthless ambition, but also one given to blunt, aggressive statements that alienate potential allies and voters alike. Thus the trajectory of the film, such as it is, traces how a politician at odds with current president and party leader, Jacques Chirac, and deemed too far to the right to hold the top office, maneuvers his way to the center, improves his media savvy, and wins enough institutional support and votes to carry the ballot.
Politics is all show in The Conquest. As one insider says to another about the future president, "You're wrong to think that Nicolas has opinions. Everything he says is pretense." Pretense it may be, but pretense is what wins elections, a point that the film makes a little too bluntly, even if it results in such memorable scenes as Sarkozy skillfully negotiating a visit to a factory and warding off the criticism of an angry foreman with expert political doublespeak.
But lest the film be stuck with a wholly unsympathetic central figure, Sarkozy's ruthlessness gives way to a cautious sensitivity via his deteriorating marriage to his second wife Cécilia (Florence Pernel), the filmmakers tempering his political triumph with a dose of personal failure. As one of Sarkozy's advisors remarks to another, Cécilia humanizes the candidate in the public eye, and Durringer uses her for the same purpose, attempting to soften the harsh portrait of his protagonist. But these scenes are among the least effective, as the director is clearly on much surer footing with political machinations than personal regrets.
Still, even as Durringer manages to turn backdoor political maneuvering into surprisingly gripping drama, the film is still limited by its conception of its central character. He may pine for his soon-to-be ex-wife, but Sarkozy is essentially all bluster and scheming, the arrogant tussler turned consummate politician whose ambitions to gain the presidency never waver. No doubt Sarkozy—or anyone who becomes the top executive in a nation's government—must be similarly ruthless and France's right-leaning pres certainly deserves all the cinematic bile he can get, but as fascinating as it is to watch the man tell off Chirac to his face or work on manipulating his media image, ultimately the film can't help but reveal its hollow center. This hollowness is certainly Durringer's point, and it's a point well taken, but it serves to limit the range of the film's inquiries. What we we're left with is an engrossing portrait of political machination which occasionally, and largely unsuccessfully, dons the scanty robes of character study.