Directed by Xavier Durringer
Produced by Eric & Nicholas Altmayer
Written by Patrick Rotman & Durringer
Released by Music Box Films
French with English subtitles
France. 105 min. Not rated
With Denis Podalydès, Florence Pernel, Bernard Le Coq, Hippolyte Girardot & Samuel Labarthe

Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2007 election as French president was a triumph for the diminutive politician, who overcame heavy opposition, even in his own party, to win a 53 percent majority and become leader of France. The Conquest, Xavier Durringer’s detailed dissection of Sarkozy’s climb to the top presents him as a flawed hero, who was nevertheless one step ahead of those hoping to prevent his inevitable rise.

The movie, cannily structured to maximize the myriad problems Sarkozy faced, opens on election day with the candidate alone and unable to track down his unhappy wife while absentmindedly thumbing his wedding ring. The movie then moves between that day’s momentous events and the highlights (and low lights) of the previous five years as a determined Sarkozy begins his unlikely ascent.

At this late date, there’s nothing earth-shattering about the events depicted—in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the movie was greeted with a collective shrug in France, where everything the movie depicts was played out on television, in newspapers, and on websites throughout the campaign. That’s not to denigrate Durringer’s achievement. The Conquest is a fascinating glimpse behind the curtain and yet another reminder of the endless machinations, power plays, and double dealings that seem necessary ingredients not only for winning an election but for a candidate’s very survival.

Where Durringer and co-writer Patrick Rotman show their greatest strength is in the central relationship between Sarkozy and his wife, Cécilia, who stood by him during his ascendancy (and was one of his most trusted advisors) until the presidential election heated up. She fell in love with Richard Attias, event organizer for the campaign, and left her husband. It’s especially enlightening to see Sarkozy’s pre-presidential family life in light of his very public marriage to his current wife, model and sometime-actress Carla Bruni.

As played by the formidable Florence Pernel, Cécilia is elegant, handsome, intelligent, and headstrong; all characteristics that help Sarkozy reach his lofty political goals. Still, Cécilia is never presented as a clichéd home wrecker, and Pernel’s warm performance humanizes not only Cécilia but Sarkozy himself.

While Denis Podalydès only slightly resembles Sarkozy, he has the man’s mannerisms down pat—the bluntness and lack of grace, not to mention the wild gesticulations while speaking (in fact, he’s branded the “premature gesticulator” early on)—and by film’s end, it’s as if we’re watching a documentary. The same evening that I saw this film, I watched the real Sarkozy give a speech at the recent G20 summit, and it felt like I was watching a mere actor. But Podalydès gives far more than an impersonation. His natural, winning presence allows empathy for a driven politician called by his detractors names like

“Little Nick,” “midget,” and “runt.”

Among a stellar supporting cast, Samuel Labarthe perfectly conveys the slimy sophistication of Sarkozy’s old party adversary Dominique de Villepin, and Bernard Le Coq looks so uncannily like President Jacques Chirac that it‘s easy to overlook his effortlessly charismatic performance.

As the president-elect walks up the stairs and away from the camera to give his first speech as France’s new leader, The Conquest gracefully ends at the moment of his greatest triumph, but there’s also a real question mark hovering over the genuine hoopla of this historic win, as if the filmmakers are warning the man to be careful for what he wished for. Five years later and with low poll numbers, Sarkozy‘s conquest might end in a single term.