Ekphrasis is a rhetorical device which consists in using the resources of one art to describe the product of another. The word came to mind last night as I watched La Conquête, Xavier Durringer's film about Nicolas Sarkozy's rise to power. If politics is an art, as thinkers from Aristotle to Tocqueville have claimed, then Durringer's technique can only be described as ekphrasis writ large: the film is from end to end a paean to a certain "artful dodger" in the realm of politics, one Nicolas Sarkozy.
This was surely not Durringer's intention. What he wanted to show us, no doubt, was the crudeness, vulgarity, and hollowness of the man Sarkozy. So we see the candidate giving a mighty thrust of his pelvis into the backside of an imaginary France held by the shoulders from behind, as he says "France will give herself to the man who wants her most." We see him hunched over his plate at Villepin's elegant table, repeatedly wolfing down his food without comment on its qualities while filching chocolates in quantity. He is ruthless, single-minded, and cunning, yet we are asked to believe throughout that his mind is that of a hormonal adolescent intent on only one thing, impressing his "girl," Cécilia, whose heart is fickle for any number of reasons never clearly differentiated by the plot: the trappings of power bore her, her husband humiliates her repeatedly, she is in love with another man, or she's just restless in late middle age, perhaps all of the above, or none. It hardly matters. This unconvincing "love affair," though at the heart of the film's scenario, is wholly incidental to its ekphrastic construction.
The film is shot through with what Roland Barthes called effets du réel, gaudy baubles of imitated reality that are supposed to attest to the authenticity of the object they embellish but in fact emphasize its facticity. Given this parti pris of achieving reality by aping it, the acting is impeccable: Denis Podalydès is more than adequate as Sarko, capturing his tics, pugnacity, irascibility, volatility, and rhythms of speech, while Bernard Le Coq is superb as Chirac and Samuel Labarthe is perfect as Villepin, even down to the famous swimsuit scene. The casting director and makeup artists deserve Oscars, because each actor looks remarkably like his principal. Michel Bompoil is a dead ringer for Henri Guaino, even if his silent lip-syncing of one of the candidate's big speeches is a somewhat preposterous rendering of the supposed intimacy of the Sarko-Guaino collaboration, in which one discerns an erotic spark slightly warmer than the chemistry between Nicolas and Cécilia. Rachida Dati, played by Sa:ïda Jawad, is also physically convincing but emotionally vacuous. The one major disappointment is Florence Pernel as Cécilia Sarkozy: she is a cipher, perhaps because Cécilia is a cipher.
But really I should say that Cécilia is a cipher to readers of the press, which is what we all are when it comes to this story, and of course as close readers of the press we all think we know the true story well enough to stamp its simulacrum with a seal of authenticity. The film brilliantly reproduces many of the publicly known highlights of the Sarkozy-Chirac-Villepin duel, but of course what it really does is simply reinforce a certain superficial journalistic reading. Agnès Porrier is right: "We don't learn anything new. No new insight, no daring hypothesis, no cunning analysis on the kind of political animal Nicolas Sarkozy is." And consequently the intended deflation of Sarkozy oddly aggrandizes him. "Salut l'artiste!" we want to say, because we come to feel that his nemeses Chirac and Villepin really are rather villainous characters, slimily reptilian, and therefore we're not at all displeased to see them bested by "the midget," as Villepin calls him, even if his manners aren't all they should be.
In the end, La Conquête therefore gives us Nicolas Sarkozy as Lucien de Rubempré, another not altogether frequentable Frenchman in whose triumphs we nevertheless rejoice, albeit with a heavily guilty conscience.