The Conquest Dir. Xavier Durringer

[Music Box Films; 2011]

Styles: docudrama
Others: W., The Queen, Il Divo

In politics, the so-called “CNN effect” references the need of any office-holder to address whatever images currently stream from the round-the-clock cable and internet newsfeed. Critics complain that this constant cycle of mediated, filtered, and often manufactured issues waters down the potential for thoughtful, deliberate discourse on more pressing concerns by directing the topic of conversation towards both the immediate and salacious storylines that trickle out of a ratings-obsessed world; others counter by pointing to the idea that unprecedented access to (not always accurate) information that contemporary media provides allows individuals in a free society to better evaluate their leaders. Meanwhile, on the sidelines, programs such as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report have literally made their living by lampooning this culture, often likening the infotainment coverage of political processes to a reality show circus. In Xavier Durringer’s The Conquest, the wife of Nicolas Sarkozy makes this same analogy as cameras surround the couple on a supposedly casual outing. For a film that attempts to “capture” the hidden, personal moments of a controversial public figure, this moment provides a level of self-awareness that is otherwise surprisingly absent.

For American audiences, the media scandal surrounding (spoiler alert) the marital discord of current French president Nicolas Sarkozy (Denis Podalydes) and now ex-wife Cecilia (Florence Pernel) may not resonate as much as the George W. Bush years or even the death of Princess Diana, the respective subjects of two similar docudramas, Oliver Stone’s W. and Stephen Frears’ The Queen. Structurally, Durringer’s presentation of Sarkozy lies somewhere between the two, limiting the sprawling biopic/Oedipal tragi-comedy take of Stone’s film while not employing as pointed a narrative and thematic focus as that of Frears’. Durringer intercuts between Sarkozy on the day of his election, frantic about the unknown status of his wife, to flashbacks intended to document his rise to media and eventual political prominence.

Although the filmmakers maintain at the outset that the film is a work of fiction, this appears to be somewhat of a wink of the lens, as Durringer uses his narrative device to alternate from documented public appearances to rumored behind-the-scenes conversations and otherwise imagined encounters. As media scrutiny forces politicians to adopt more cultivated personae, this tendency towards of-the-moment political accounts suggests a desire to understand the “man behind the mask.” In one such metaphorical scene, Sarkozy literally constructs the image he will present to France when he announces his run for office, surveying the massive staging hall; seconds later, a shot-reverse shot reveals his wife flirting with the man she eventually runs off with, followed by a twist of pain on Sarkozy’s countenance.

Yet is it really such a secret that powerful men and women experience the ups and downs of human existence just like the rest of us? Moreover, just as Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is simply one man’s interpretation of the character, this Sarkozy is another such portrait. Durringer does manage to delve into other interesting sub-themes, such as the role of political wives in France; however, why not do that with a true work of fiction? Moreover, if the film is secretly about the “women behind the men,” why not do more with the fact that Sarkozy runs against a female candidate? Like Stone’s W., Durringer’s account of Sarkozy often plays like a “greatest hits” record of the most reported moments leading up to his reign. Perhaps Durringer should have looked across the channel instead: The Queen succeeds because it utilizes a deftly satirical lens to pinpoint the exact moment (at least in British life) that the media began to dictate public affairs. The Conquest, never manages to attain a sufficient perspective as to why the filmmakers should be adopting the “CNN effect” in their approach to cinema.

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