'The Conquest' and France's Political Film Renaissance

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A biopic of President Nicolas Sarkozy is the latest in a wave of election-themed Gallic movies

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The Conquest

The French film world appears to be taking on a new genre. Primary Colors, Nixon, Frost/Nixon, W., American Dreamz, Wag the Dog, The Last Hurrah all stand as examples of American cinema's strong tradition of using politics as creative fodder. Across the Atlantic, British cinema has turned out such satirical and reflective items as In the Loop or The Queen. But films like this have been rare in France—until this year.

This Friday is the American release of the first French biopic of a sitting president, one of several French films this year to dive into politics. Xavier Durringer's La Conqête (The Conquest in English) chronicles the rise of French president Nicolas Sarkozy, from his first appointment as Minister of the Interior to his victory over Ségolène Royale. Along the way, he says some nasty and arrogant things—often to even nastier and more arrogant people—and loses his wife, who tires of his endless political climbing and runs off with a publicist. Here's a clip:

Released with much media fanfare, La Conquête was met with mixed reviews by French film critics. Isabelle Régnier at French daily Le Monde, for example, articulated a common complaint: that the film relied on caricature rather than character development, recognition rather than emotional connection. But it's still worth watching for American audiences, for two reasons.

First, American viewers might not have the same reaction as the European critics. Being less familiar with the figures being caricatured probably helps. Americans are less likely to feel hostage to what one French reviewer described wearily as "the only question [the film] raises" in its viewers: Do these characters resemble their real-life counterparts? In fact, those unfamiliar with French politics may even find the film informative.

La Conqête, one critic says, treads on what, in France, is the "sacrosanct private domain of political men."

The second reason to see the film is the same reason many French critics, even while unconvinced of its artistic value, decided it was worth the trip: French cinema simply hasn't produced anything like this before. Now that the taboo has been broken, even the critical Régnier points out, "it potentially opens up a new genre and, who knows, [perhaps] more successful films." La Conqête, her fellow Le Monde critic Thomas Sotinel explains, busts the field wide open by treading on what, in France, is the "sacrosanct private domain of political men."

But La Conquête wasn't alone this year in venturing into politics. There was also Alain Cavalier's Pater, garnering better reviews for its more reflective and thought-provoking, if also less politically flashy, look at the relationship of an older president and a younger prime minister. The director told The New York Times he "borrowed a few things from [former French president François] Mitterrand and transformed them." But perhaps the moment of greater resonance for French audiences was unintentional—what Libération reviewer Olivier Séguret called an "involuntary allusion to the DSK case" when the prime minister is offered a "compromising photo" of his competitor (the DSK affair was widely seen in France as a deliberate attempt to discredit the presumptive socialist candidate for president).

Jean-Luc Wachthausen at French publication Le Figaro thus declared last month that 2011, which also saw some "telefilms" on Charles de Gaulle and Georges Pompidou, "will have been a hinge year for French cinema." These movies have made a foray into "a genre one thought reserved to Brits and Americans," and Wachthausen points out that one would have "to go back to the 1970s to Yves Boisset (L'Attentat and R.A.S.), Costa-Gavras (Z et L'Aveu)" to see the last time French cinema became so interested in politics.

But it's not just that the films deal with political plot lines. It's also that they question these plot lines. In fact, in the enthusiasm of some of the French reviewers, "Brits and Americans" might gain extra appreciation for their film traditions. French film, Wachsthausen continues, has a long way to go "before attaining the temerity, insolence, and the complex-free approach of the Anglo-Saxon directors. We are far from the devastating style of a film like In the Loop ... or the biting style of Stephen Frears in The Queen." Illuminatingly, he continues: "Even American directors, from David Griffith and John Ford to Oliver Stone, have never failed to interrogate the principals of democracy, the drifting of their political system or the failings of their presidents. ... French filmmakers could be inspired."

So give some of these French offerings a shot if you get the chance. Whether you agree with those who think The Conquest has nothing to offer but obsession with "its own audacity," or are tickled pink by the thought of a French film exploring the prelude to the glamor-laden Bruni-Sarkozy reign, there's a broader theme in the background. Maintaining a vibrant democratic civil society isn't just about the boldness of our politicians. It's also about the boldness and political interest of our artists and entertainers.

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Heather Horn is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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