French glamor has, in recent years, largely been represented by Carla Bruni-Sarkozy: the whirlwind courtship! The record! The Woody Allen movie cameo! The first baby born to a French president while in office! And so it’s interesting to turn back the clock a bit in The Conquest, Xavier Durringer’s fictional account of Carla Bruni-Sarkozy’s husband’s rise to power — and the woman he was married to before her. The Conquest can be ponderous when it comes to putting powerful men together in the gilded French halls of state. But as a movie about what it means to be a political wife, The Conquest can be absolutely searing — and applicable to any continent.
When the movie begins, Cécilia Sarkozy is encouraging her husband to embrace his new job as Interior Minister with vigor, telling him to “Create the news and comment on it. Be actor and director.” Much of the movie’s dialogue has this sort of momentous quality, something it shares with Starz’s Boss. I understand the desire to lend a grandeur to politics, but such language is at constant risk of being risible, and sometimes falls into that trap here. And it’s not necessary as Cécilia watches with mounting disappointment as her husband moves to become party head rather than embracing the work of the ministry, as he lambastes the businessmen she wants him to work with, spitting out that “Their generosity will be compensated.” We feel her growing discomfort as the couple becomes the object of intense media scrutiny — there are constant shots of people doing normal things, like eating breakfast, or going for a bike ride, only to have a cut or a wider shot reveal that they are performing for a cadre of photographers. “Our life has become a reality show,” Cécilia says, as they’re mobbed, walking on a beach. “We’re acting transparent, honey,” her husband replies, clearly feeding off the attention.
When she rebels, the only language Sarkozy has to woo her back is politics. “I’d like to share this with you,” he tells her. “We’ve wanted this for 20 years.” When he says “I can’t be alone,” it’s not because he can’t live without her, but because he can’t run for president without her. During a meeting with Jacques Chirac and his fellow Ministers, Sarkozy performs a double maneuver, showing his contempt for his colleagues by breaking up the meeting to text Cécilia, who has left him for her lover, playing a nasty game of brinksmanship by telling her “Either you come home [for the election] or I marry her,” a newspaper reporter he’s been seeing. Sarkozy’s political rivals and staff see the state of the Sarkozy marriage as a political condition. “If he can’t hold onto his wife, how can he hold on to France?” Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin crows triumphantly while working out on a rowing machine in a gorgeous historic French mansion. “She decides, he executes,” Sarkozy’s staff say of Cécilia, echoing language Chirac’s staff urged him to use to keep Sarkozy in line. The possessiveness is ugly. “You can’t pull away from me. Or me from you,” Sarkozy says, ignoring the fact that he’s already done that to her, when she says she’s leaving him. “We’re meant to be together.” He grabs her, hard. He throws things. When he touches her cheek after his victory, he touches her flesh less to caress and more to mold and subdue.
The positioning between powerful men is less interesting and emotionally rich, though it can be funny. “You looked great coming out of the water, like Ursula Andress in James Bond,” Sarkozy tells de Villepin while they’re on a working retreat, mocking him for playing the diva. “You know your classics,” de Villepin swipes back, putting down his less traditionally polished rival. And the movie doesn’t deal in a really substantive way with the riots in Paris suburbs that Sarkozy jumped on as a way to gain favor with conservatives. “We talk about ‘incivility’ instead of riots, ‘gangbangs’ instead of rape,” he tells Chirac, but the movie treats this move mostly as a matter of opportunism rather than getting into its racial component. But for its flaws, The Conquest looks gorgeous: lamps glow yellow on Jacques Chirac’s desk, and the yellow ribbons that divide an airport queue pop against the white stone floor, while the green glass of a moving walkway glimmers wetly, transforming a mundane space into something grand. And the grandeur of official French offices highlights the entitlement of these men. This is politics as performed by princes. But these days, princesses tend to have agendas and priorities of their own.