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CANNES, France (Reuters) - A French movie about Nicolas Sarkozy's rise to power in 2007 pulled the Cannes film festival on to political terrain on Wednesday as a crowd of mostly French critics gave the film a lukewarm response.
Much hyped before its unveiling, "La Conquete" by director Xavier Durringer brings spectators behind the scenes and into Sarkozy's inner circle as he campaigns for French president amid a failing marriage, scandals and bitter rivalries.
Briskly paced and unsparing in its portrayal of France's political elite, from former president Jacques Chirac to Interior Minister Claude Gueant, the film drew many laughs at an out-of-competition showing attended mostly by French reporters.
But the round of applause at the end was weak and brief, as critics appeared to focus more on what they said was the film's uncritical nature than its quality as a work of cinema.
"What did I think of it? Nothing." said one French film journalist who declined to be named. "It's a ... portrait that takes absolutely no risks in portraying the president."
Landing amid political uproar in France, where the arrest in New York last week of Socialist frontrunner Dominique Strauss-Kahn on rape charges has upset odds ahead of a 2012 election, "La Conquete" appeared likely to divide the French with its non-polemical, at times sympathetic portrayal of an unpopular president.
Mired in weak poll ratings a year from the election, Sarkozy's chances at being re-elected appear to have changed overnight as his main rival and IMF chief Strauss-Kahn falls out of favor amid the news that the president and his glamorous current wife Carla Bruni may be expecting a child.
Asked about its political impact director Durringer said the film would not sway voters but could serve as a "sort of memento of the promises and the energy that were around in 2007."
One politician who gets tough treatment is Dominique de Villepin, a protege of Chirac's depicted as scheming and foul-mouthed as he tries to discredit Sarkozy, his arch rival.
"The idea from the very beginning was to give a hyper-realistic analysis," producer Eric Altmeyer told a press conference. "There was no question of making a satirical movie or a pamphlet in one way or another."
Played by French actor Denis Podalydes, Sarkozy's character is a carefully studied imitation that mirrors the president's manner down to his helmet-like hairstyle (Podalydes is bald) lilting walk, halting diction and famous sweet tooth.
"La Conquete," or The Conquest, shows Sarkozy as a political animal, at times brutal with an entourage of advisers that includes former wife Cecilia, but also charming and humane -- an overall balanced portrayal.
"It came to me through his voice more than through the torrent of footage that I watched for the role," Podalydes said at a press conference. "I surprised myself by discovering a form of confidence, a new authority.
"I noticed that my friends were listening to me with more attention than before -- even though my head was covered in wax as I waited for the wig (to be applied)," he added.
At the heart of "La Conquete" is Sarkozy's struggle to regain the affection of his former wife Cecilia, who left him for advertising executive Richard Attias during the campaign, returning briefly to his side on the day of his election.
Distraught over her departure, Sarkozy rages at Cecilia in an emotional separation scene and peppers her with imploring text messages as he tries to get her back.
Hinting at the reason for their separation, the film shows Sarkozy talking down to Cecila, also a close adviser.
While "La Conquete" does not refer directly to Bruni, a former top model whom Sarkozy married in 2008, an advisor tells him at one point that the French will not accept having a bachelor living at the Elysee presidential palace.
Personal matters overlap with politics throughout "La Conquete" -- echoing current events as French media race to confirm talk that Bruni is pregnant with Sarkozy's child.
Neither Bruni, who had a small role in Woody Allen's out of competition comedy "Midnight in Paris," nor Sarkozy have attended the Cannes festival or made any comment about the film.
Director Durringer said "La Conquete," the first French production to portray an acting president, was shot in secret with no support or opposition from the president's office.
Editing by Paul Casciato