Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The semifictional drama of Sarkozy's rise to power constitutes a sharp break with more reverential French film tradition

As if the life of Nicolas Sarkozy has not produced enough melodrama — especially with rumors now that his third wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, may be pregnant [since confirmed] — French moviemakers have produced a semifictional drama, called “La Conquête,” or “The Conquest,” that purports to take us behind the scenes of his rise to power.
That is how Steven Erlanger starts his article on the film which was shown at the Cannes Film Festival today.
“The story of a man who wins power and loses his wife,” is the tag line, a neat summary of the relentless Mr. Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign to succeed Jacques Chirac even as his second wife, Cécilia, falls in love with another man but returns to pretend all is normal until the final vote is cast — and then disappears.

The tale is meant to be Shakespearean, a drama of flawed, ambitious men and romantic, calculating women, a delineation behind the curtains of political scheming, betrayal, personal loss and the price of power. But it is also the story of a serving president, a sharp break with more reverential French tradition.

The models for the film, said the producer, Eric Altmayer, were Anglo-Saxon — “The Candidate,” “Bob Roberts,” “All the President’s Men,” “Primary Colors” and, of course, “The Queen,” the depiction of the British monarch’s struggle with Diana, Princess of Wales, and her death. The director, Xavier Durringer, has worked hard for verisimilitude, he insists, not for caricature or satire.

“It’s not a political film, but it’s about politics,” Mr. Durringer said. “It’s not a film about Sarkozy himself, but about the conquest of power.”

Mr. Altmayer said: “We tried to stay as objective as possible. We tried to come close to him, his vulnerability and contradictions, his good and bad.”

… [Sarkozy] is particularly fond of American films, personally pinning a high rank of the Legion of Honor on Clint Eastwood and giving a disquisition about his love of Mr. Eastwood’s directness and simplicity, contrasting it to the bourgeois, talky complexities of the average French film.

… The actor who plays him, Denis Podalydès, known for his work in the theater, wears a curly wig, but otherwise impersonates Mr. Sarkozy through his twitches, mannerisms and gestures.

…But the film clearly includes fictional moments, especially of intimate conversations, as Mr. Sarkozy tries to persuade Cécilia, his second wife, not to leave him.

The trailer shows one scene of Mr. Sarkozy storming out of a political meeting saying: “I’m a Ferrari. You open the hood with white gloves on.” At another point in the trailer he yells, “I’m surrounded by jerks!” In general, the film has him speak, in private, in a tough, vulgar slang. Another character calls him mad, and the actor playing Mr. Chirac pretends to shoot Mr. Sarkozy with an imaginary rifle.

…The filmmakers have worked on the project for years, with a script by a political historian, Patrick Rotman, but found little money from the usual sources. Gaumont, which gave its imprimatur and distribution network, contributed only a modest amount of money, and French television channels, which normally help finance French films, all declined to touch “La Conquête,” all except the paid cable channel Canal Plus, Mr. Altmayer said.

“It’s not a big surprise from the private channels — we are in France, don’t forget — and they are very close to the power,” he said. “I was a bit more disillusioned with public channels like France Television, but they never explained why. There is a kind of self-censorship that is very French.”

Mr. Durringer said that “around certain subjects there can be a kind of fear — when you are the director of a channel, you tell yourself that if it’s taken badly by the Élysée, you’re going to get fired.”

… There have been other French films about postwar presidents. A 2005 film, made after his death, showed François Mitterrand trying to write his memoirs, and there have been made-for-television films about Charles de Gaulle and others.

But this film is about a sitting president in a new era of politics and the media, which Mr. Durringer describes as one of celebrity and informality, when Mr. Sarkozy “is more in the media than any rock star or actor, more exposed in the media than Johnny Hallyday.”

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