Sarah's Key (Elle s’appelait Sarah)
Director : Gilles Paquet-Brenner
Screenplay : Serge Joncour and Gilles Paquet-Brenner (based on the novel by Tatiana De Rosnay)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2010
Stars : Kristin Scott Thomas (Julia Jarmond), Mélusine Mayance (Sarah Starzynski), Niels Arestrup (Jules Dufaure), Frédéric Pierrot (Bertrand Tezac), Michel Duchaussoy (Édouard Tezac), Dominique Frot (Geneviève Dufaure), Natasha Mashkevich (Mme Starzynski), Gisèle Casadesus (Mamé), Aidan Quinn (William Rainsferd), Sarah Ber (Rachel), Arben Bajraktaraj (M. Starzynski), Karina Hin (Zoé), James Gerard (Mike Bambers)
Sarah’s Key (Elle s’appelait Sarah) is a consistently engrossing, sometimes stunning, but emotionally uneven film that literalizes its thematic insistence on the importance of storytelling in maintaining historical memory by making an often neglected chapter of the Holocaust the core of its own narrative. Based on Tatiana De Rosnay’s 2007 international bestseller, the film follows two intertwined storylines, one set in 1942 and one set during the present.
The historical story involves Sarah Starzynski (Mélusine Mayance), a Parisian Jewish preteen who is arrested with her parents by the collaborative French police in the Vel’ d’Hiv’ Roundup in June of 1942, so named because more 13,000 French Jews were interned for more than a week at the Vélodrome d’hiver (Vel’ d’Hiv’, for short), an indoor cycling arena that was once home to the Tour de France, in stifling heat with little food or water and no bathroom facilities. The Roundup is one of France’s most painful historical moments (in 1995, then-President Jacques Chirac described it as “black hours [that] will stain our history forever and are an injury to our past and our traditions”), and director Gilles Paquet-Brenner (who cowrote the screenplay with Serge Joncour) depicts the atrocity with a sickening intensity that does not rely on graphic violence or overtly shocking images, but rather on an accumulation of individual details, both witnessed and described. Thus, we need only brief glimpses of internees urinating in the stands and a woman committing suicide by leaping from one of the upper decks to understand just how horrible the situation was; similarly, a woman who lived across the street describing decades later how she had to close her windows during the Roundup, not to shut out the noise, but rather the stench, provides sickening testimony that stays with you long after the film has ended. (Interesting, Sarah’s Key is the second French film of the past year to deal with the events at the Vélodrome, the other being Rose Bosch’s La rafle [The Roundup], which is based on the firsthand accounts of one of the event’s few survivors.)
The Vel’ d’Hiv’ Roundup is just the beginning of Sarah’s story, though, as she is moved to an internment camp and separated from her parents (Arben Bajraktaraj and Natasha Mashkevich), but maintains her resolve to escape and make it back to their Parisian apartment where her little brother is hiding in a locked closet. That apartment becomes the key point of connection between past and present, as the present-tense story finds Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas), an American-born journalist who now lives and works in Paris, about to move into it with her husband Bertrand (Frédéric Pierrot) and their teenage daughter Zoé (Karina Hin). It just so happens that Julia is working on a story about the Vel’ d’Hiv’ Roundup, and in the process she uncovers the history of the apartment, which is being given to them by Bertrand’s parents. Wracked by guilt that she may be moving her family into what is essentially a stolen home, Julia becomes intent on tracking down any surviving members of the Starzynski family, an obsession that is duly complicated by an unexpected and perhaps miraculous mid-life pregnancy that splits she and Bertrand apart.
When Sarah’s Key is focused on the title character, it is as gripping a piece of historical fiction as one could imagine, buoyed by the superb performance by Mélusine Mayance as Sarah. Mayance is compelling as we watch her shed childhood through a series of infernos, at one point literalized by a three-day fever from which she awakes more determined than ever. She embodies an optimism and determination that is childlike in the best way and is therefore fundamentally tragic because we know deep inside that it is misplaced. She has been thrown into the maw of modern history’s worst atrocity and fights to maintain her humanity at every turn, but even the best fights sometimes end tragically. Whether she survives or not is one of the film’s most riveting questions, but in hindsight we recognize that, whether she lives or dies, she will be forever defined by the tragedies that engulfed her, a harrowing ordeal that Mayance shoulders with great skill and dexterity.
Unfortunately, despite a fine performance by Kristin Scott Thomas, the present-tense story is not nearly, or even comparatively, compelling except as it moves the narrative forward in learning more about Sarah’s fate. The melodrama of Julia’s familial conundrum--to keep the baby and complicate her already complicated life or abort it and continue on as is--should intertwine emotionally with Sarah’s journey nearly 60 years earlier, but it doesn’t. On paper, one can see the thematic connections between the two stories (and perhaps they work better together in the novel, which I have not read), but cinematically they don’t cohere, and as a result Julia’s travails feel largely irrelevant except in offering temporary respites from Sarah’s arduous journey and thereby escalating the tensions around her fate.
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
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