Nicolas Sarkozy has been in the American news a lot recently, leading the way in Libya, chewing out the Greek prime minister, accompanying Angela Merkel in her last days of the euro tour. From here one would hardly guess Sarkozy is sort of the George W. Bush of France. In fact, Sarkozy is now the subject of an American-style political biopic, something very rare in French cinema, according to Heather Horn. Xavier Durringer’s La Conqête (The Conquest) depicts the French president as a crass, nasty social climber pushing his way past often nastier members of the French political elite.
The Conquest is an unusual film, Horn suggests, because it offers a glimpse into the private lives of the men who run France. The Dominique Strauss-Kahn incident highlighted differing attitudes about the private lives of political figures, and Durringer’s film seems to tread on the same territory.
While there are certainly differences in the political cultures of France and the United States, there are also historical differences between the cinemas of the two nations and how they represent the political. The French cinema is probably no more or less political than Hollywood. Rather, French cinema is political in a different way. French political films tend to be more about film as a representational medium. Godard’s films are the most obvious example of this mode, but Jean Renoir’s political films of the 1930s called attention to themselves as representations of a society on the brink of ruin. The American style is more journalistic, more documentary. American filmmakers use film as a more or less neutral medium to depict an investigation into murky depths of the government. This tradition started in the 1970s with films like All the President’s Men (1976) and Serpico (1973).
It remains to be seen if The Conquest will be the Serpico or W. of French cinema. Considering the generally tepid critical reception of the film in France, it doesn’t seem likely.