Modern politics is many things: Identity driven, money-hungry, and more mendacious than ever. It’s also, sadly, kind of a farce, as movies like "W," "The Iron Lady," and "The Conquest" show.
The rise of the film that acts as a self-parody for thinly (if at all) fictionalized politics is understandable. As cynicism amongst statesmen and office holders becomes more overt, cynicism rises also amongst the electorate. If movies have excelled at anything, it’s in responding to the time and the shifting moods (and viewing appetites) of their mass audience. Sometimes movies offer us relief and fantasy (films about elegance and adventure were popular during the Depression); sometimes they more closely parallel actual experience (the downbeat anti-heroes of the 1970s reflected the national sugar crash that followed the ’60s; the 1980s saw the rise of the jittery movie whose characters were fueled on caffeine, cocaine, and cash).
The droll, subtly bitter tinge of movies like "The Conquest" both scoffs at and exploits the mechanics of politics in the early 21st century, when opponents manufacture scandals to derail their opposition and the tastes of the day demand that ambition, like sex, be naked, aggressive, and unapologetic.
That’s not to say that the familiar fictions about politics have been abandoned. For Nicolas Sarkozy (Denis Podalydès), France’s current president, the trick to securing his powerful office lay not so much in navigating the land mines laid out by his opposition (some of whom belong to his own party), but in finessing his image as a family man. When wife Cécilia (Florence Pernel) tires of the five-year slog between Sarkozy’s appointment as Minister of the Interior and his election as president and starts dating another man, Sarkozy’s enemies chuckle: "If he can’t hold on to his own wife, how can he hold on to France?" one Sarkozy nemesis laughs.
In other words, it’s the same old story: smoke and mirrors, so-called "family values," and underneath it all the remnants of a patriarchy, quivering with terror and rage. Director Xavier Durringer has an eye for the telling detail (in one scene, a reporter trips over his own feet and falls on his face as a pack of journalists race toward a political celebrity; the crowd of media types have just been interviewing Sarkozy, but their attention lapses and their hair-trigger herd instincts take over at the sight of another newsworthy persona), but the film mostly relies on Nicola Piovani’s score to generate its mocking mood.
Master of French farce François Ozon reportedly turned down the directorial assignment of "The Conquest," and it’s too bad. Ozon is no stranger to political satire: Even though his last film, the Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu vehicle "Potiche" (2010), was dreadful, it possessed a comic energy and a willingness to tweak the machinations of power that "The Conquest" sorely lacks.
Part of the difficulty, of course, is that politics has become such a bad joke that it’s hard to make fun of it; rage seems a more sensible course, but it’s rage of an impotent sort, which leaves us only laughter. This sort of material needs a touch both lighter and more daring than Durringer’s.
The DVD release features theatrical trailers for other films from Music Box films, as well as a ’Making Of’ featurette. Unfortunately, the review copy of the DVD release was not an actual commercial DVD of the release for the home market, but rather a screener for the theatrical release and did not include the featurette.
"The Conquest," DVD release - $29.95. http://www.musicboxfilms.com