Filming Sarko

Director Xavier Durringer discusses his controversial new film about Nicolas Sarkozy -- and whether the president has changed French politics forever.

An exclusive clip from The Conquest

With his hard-charging personality, media-hogging style, and always eventful personal life, Sarko l’americain, as he’s known back home, has long been an object of fascination in the United States. This week, the French president is back in the news stateside after blunt comments made to President Barack Obama about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were leaked to the press. And on Friday, U.S. audiences will get a very different view of the Sarkozy phenomenon when Xavier Durringer’s new film The Conquest hits theaters.

The movie begins in early May 2007, as Sarkozy (portrayed by Denis Podalydès) is both waiting for confirmation of his election as president of France and attempting to track down his estranged wife Cecilia, who has gone missing at the worst possible moment. In a series of flashbacks, the film then shows how Sarkozy rose from a relatively obscure minister in the Jacques Chirac administration to the presidency in just five years, outflanking both Chirac and his arch-rival, former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, but alienating his wife and once-trusted advisor Cecilia in the process.

Like Stephen Frears’s The Deal and Oliver Stone’s W., The Conquest takes on the tricky task of fictionalizing recent political events, in this case depicting a leader who is still in power. Foreign Policy‘s Joshua E. Keating discussed the controversial project with writer and director Xavier Durringer:

Foreign Policy: You begin your story and end it at the moment Sarkozy takes power. Why did you choose to document his rise rather than the presidency itself?

Xavier Durringer: I decided to do it from that perspective because this is a film about the conquest of power. In 2002, Sarkozy was minister of the interior, he was only number four or five in terms of importance in his party, but you can see that within that five-year period he was really able to rise. It’s also a film about sacrifice: what did he have to sacrifice in order to obtain power, when he obtained power but he lost his wife. So it’s really intended to show how politics has changed in France and how it changed with Sarkozy.

FP: Chirac and Villepin, as depicted in the film, not only saw Sarkozy as a rival but personally despised him. What was it that you think these men found so offensive about him?

XD: I think the issue here is that Nicolas Sarkozy was really not part of that harem that was surrounding Chirac and Villepin. He wasn’t from the same kind of political family, he wasn’t coming from the same place. Nicolas Sarkozy is an extremely complex man. In this case, in this film, we see him take power but it’s power taken from within. And he has a very small group of people around him, ten or 12 people, with whom he works and these are the people who enable him to rise to power. He had really pretty much broken with a lot of Chirac’s policies during the course of Chirac’s presidency and didn’t agree with quite a number of them.

I think that Chirac and Villepin actually are more representative of the traditional, aristocratic, republican right, whereas Sarkozy really is more representative of the right of the right, even going so far as to try to understand what was appealing to voters [for the far-right National Front] to see if he could bring them into his side.

In this particular case, Chirac is somebody who really didn’t want to disturb the codes. He was very traditional. He didn’t want to rock the boat. Whereas, with Sarkozy, you have someone who comes in and completely breaks the code, the traditional behavior of politicians in France. He’s someone who focused very much on the media. You see him jogging. You see him on his bike. You see him every day. Every day in the media, another story about him. Basically, what he did was really to take the image of the politician in France, dust off that image and make it something much more modern.

FP: There’s been a sort of traditional notion that French voters and the French media are not as concerned about the personal lives of their politicians as Americans are. That really hasn’t been the case with Sarkozy, with both the divorce from Cecilia that you show in this film, and his marriage to Carla Bruni during his presidency. How much of that has to do with Sarkozy’s style, and how much of it is a bigger change in political culture?

XD: In the case of France, it does have something to do with Sarkozy. The way politics is performed, the way it’s done, has changed with Sarkozy. But I think that what you see with Sarkozy is something that’s actually pretty widespread throughout the world today. Politicians are coming out of the shadows and moving into the spotlight. They’ve become much more like show-business personalities. We know more about their lives. They use media more. The paparazzi follow them. They’re on the covers of magazines. They brought their emotions onto center stage as well as their ideas and their policies. So in this respect, they’ve become like actors almost. I think this is probably one of the major problems that we have with politics today is this change. Sarkozy contributed to this change, but it’s not unique to him.

FP: Have you heard any reactions to the film from Sarkozy or any of the other people depicted?

XD: Sarkozy actually announced before the film came out that he was absolutely not going to see it, because he didn’t think that it would be good for his mental health. He said that perhaps psychoanalysis would be more beneficial. Carla Bruni, on the other hand, said that she wanted to see it very much and I think part of that was because she was curious. She was curious about what Sarkozy’s life had been like before she came onto the scene.

We know from calls that we received from different movie theaters where it was shown that a lot of political figures have gone to see it. [Former Socialist party candidate] Ségolène Royal went to see it, [current presidential frontrunner] François Hollande went to see it. In the political press, a lot of commentary has pointed out that 99 percent of what in shown in the film is true. One of the things that neither Villepin nor Chirac nor anybody else could complain about was that this was an unfair representation of them because it tries to be very truthful.

FP: Coming out so close to a presidential election, do you hope that this film might influence voters?

XD: No. The film was not really made to influence the elections in any way because it’s not really a film that either shows him in a positive light, or in a negative light. So people who are supportive of Sarkozy, who go to see the film, when they come out, they still feel good about him. You have people who go to see the film who don’t like Sarkozy and when they come out they know why it is that they don’t like Sarkozy. It’s confirmed for them. What we were more concerned about was making a film that showed what the political system is like. Particularly, how is politics conducted now, in this particular time.

FP: Do you think you might make another film about Sarkozy in the future? I’d love to see the courtship of Carla Bruni on the big screen.

XD: You know, I spent three years of my life with Nicolas Sarkozy in making this film and I really think that’s quite enough.

Joshua E. Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy.

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