Pete Hammond

Cannes has never been a place to shy away from politics. It’s not enough that official competition entry Melancholia’s director Lars von Trier stirred things up Wednesday by singling out Hitler and Nazis for his admiration, forcing the festival to ask for an apology. The last couple of days have also seen presidential politics creep into the fest lineup in a very prominent way with eyebrow-raising equal-opportunity disses thrown at President Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy in two very different films screening in the official selection.

Before the Festival began May 11, we reported rampant rumors that Sarkozy might be attending the Cannes kickoff since his wife, Carla Bruni, was appearing in the opening-night film, Midnight In Paris. As it turned out, neither showed on the red carpet, but Wednesday Sarkozy finally made his debut in Cannes — sort of. The night’s main event, an out-of-competition premiere showing of The Conquest, launched the nationwide start of what can only be described as a French Primary Colors (a veiled story of Bill Clinton). Unlike that movie, this one, about Sarkozy’s rise to power, was not even thinly disguised, using real names and actors who look exactly like the real-life players.  Sarkozy cannot be very happy with this portrait, which paints him as a master manipulator who was dumped by his wife of 20 years and then participates in a charade to convince voters he is still happily married in order to get elected – even though the “future” First Lady has shacked up with another guy. It may be tres scandalous but it is also very entertaining, surprisingly one of the best times I have had in the Palais the entire festival.

At first, you would think a French film about national politics would be off limits to anybody but locals. The fact is this film could play anywhere. It’s a biting, hilarious story of a grab for ultimate power that with a revolving cast of ambitious, duplicitous characters is full of positively Shakespearean intrigue. It’s interesting that even though the names are real, an on-screen card at the beginning states, with a wink, that “the story is fiction.”

It also is lucky timing that The Conquest (French title: La Conquete) is using its high-profile Cannes launch  to open in theaters across the country just as a sex scandal involving presumed 2012 French presidential frontrunner and chief Sarkozy rival Dominique Strauss-Kahn (the International  Monetary Fund chief and leader of the Socialist Party) is making headlines here and in New York, where he is being held for allegedly sexually assaulting a maid at a high-end hotel — charges he denies. And in the very same week Sarkozy’s father announces that Bruni is pregnant with their first child, an event sure to boost the unpopular president’s sagging polls, which reportedly stand at 20% approval. It’s the perfect background to view this shrewd and lively film that shines a light on the routine backstabbing involved in any political process. Plus, its got a sensational lead performance by Denis Podalydes, who has clearly studied Sarkozy with a fine-tooth comb and turns in a flawless portrait of a very flawed man — at least the way it’s painted in director Xavier Durringer’s take on things.

It was also fun to see it with a packed house of mostly French film fans at the 2300-seat Lumiere theatre this morning. Although U.S. distributors might shy away due to the very French political content, this is a film that with clever marketing could probably find some success in America. It’s certainly more worthy and a lot better than Sleeping Beauty and House of Tolerance, mediocre and exploitative French titles in competition here that have already been picked up for distribution by Sundance Selects.

The Obama bashing takes place in The Big Fix, the only documentary in the festival’s official selection of films this year. It focuses on the scandals behind the Gulf oil crisis and had its world premiere out of competition Tuesday night. With a tagline calling it “The ultimate un-cover up,” filmmakers Josh and Rebecca Tickell hope to replicate the success of another doc that debuted in the exact same Cannes venue one year ago and went on to win an Oscar as Best Documentary Feature. That film of course was Inside Job, a brilliantly conceived indictment of Wall Street that Big Fix wants to emulate in style and substance. Unfortunately the Tickells’ half-baked movie never rises to the occasion, settling in to be a overly slanted agitprop that is bleak and hopelessly depressing. The directors have chosen interview subjects who offer repetitive theories on how the problems that got us into this mess will never be solved so why bother. The only solution and positive suggestion the filmmakers come up with is for people to rise up, as in Egypt and Wisconsin (there’s lots of footage), to take to the streets against the oil companies .

The film also comes out swinging against President Obama, repeatedly stating he is no better than George W. Bush and even implying at one point that his administration and all government is corrupt. It presents the most aggressive attack from the left on Obama yet seen. Peter Fonda executive produced and is seen mainly in the first 15 minutes of the film “observing” the problems that were the result of the worst oil spill in history. Then the voice-over narration says he had to go back to L.A., making his entire on-camera participation pointless. At an American Pavilion news conference, Fonda went even further than the film in attacking Obama. “I sent an email to President Obama saying ‘you are a f****** traitor’ by those words. ’You’re a traitor, you allowed foreign boots (meaning ther BP oil company) on our shore, telling our military — in this case the Coast Guard — what they can and could not do,’ ” he said.

At least 20 minutes too long, The Big Fix is in need of a big fix itself, seeming more like a work-in-progress than something that would have any shot of theatrical success in its present form. It does focus worthy attention on the continuing plight of Gulf residents and effectively details BP’s broken promises (to date), but it doesn’t offer an alternative beyond picking up protest signs.

Beyond this, Cannes could be gearing up for more political impact if, as fest director Thierry Fremaux indicated today, persecuted Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof (sentenced to six years in jail and banned from making films for 20 years; he is free on bail but can’t leave Iran) is allowed to travel to France and attend the festival before it ends Sunday evening.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.