‘Sarah’s Key’ Unlocks the Ever-Present Past

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CHICAGO – The old saying, “those who cannot remember the past is doomed to repeat it” applies succinctly in “Sarah’s Key,” a Holocaust film with a French twist. Kristin Scott Thomas plays an American journalist who uncovers the facts in a less-remembered incident that reverberates to now.

This film is essentially about the incident itself and the aftermath. The event is a rock thrown into a pond, with the waves from the splash resonating over 60 years. This is the French side of the Nazi occupation, and their complicity in the round-up and extermination of the Jewish population in Paris. The characters may be fictional, but this horror story of the war cannot hide its abominable truth.

Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas) is an hot-shot American journalist who has taken a job in Paris with an investigative magazine. While her husband Bertrand (Frédéric Pierrot) renovates an apartment he got in a family inheritance, Julia becomes intrigued with the history of the address. It seems that Bertrand’s family had procured the dwelling during World War 2, after a Jewish family who had lived there had been rounded-up in the infamous Vel’d’Hiv incident.

The family’s name is Starzynski, and their youngest daughter is Sarah (Mélusine Mayance). When the French authorities raid the apartment Sarah manages to lock her brother in a closet, and hold onto the key. She and the rest of her family is taken away, and held in a sports stadium in Paris called the Vel’d’Hiv, As describe in the film, this place is “a million times worse than the New Orleans Superdome during Katrina.” It is packed with Jewish prisoners, with little food, water or waste facilities. It becomes a putrid weigh station for the concentration camps

Mélusine Mayance as Sarah and Niels Arestrup as Jules in ‘Sarah’s Key’
Mélusine Mayance as Sarah and Niels Arestrup as Jules in ‘Sarah’s Key’
Photo credit: The Weinstein Company

Sarah becomes obsessed with getting her brother freed, even after she is separated from her parents and ends up in a different camp. Her overriding assignment becomes escape, and when she manages to do it the rest of her life unfolds based on the result of what happens when she finally turns her key. It is up to an American journalist 60 years after Sarah’s story to uncover the truth.

Director Gille Paquet-Brenner creates a detailed narrative, based on the popular French novel of the same name. The atmosphere is driven by the American journalist character and her obsession with the story matches Sarah and the key. We live in an era where the kind of journalism that Julia practices seems dead, yet her pursuit of the story reminds us how those who uncover the truth may be condemned to be most effected by it.

Kirsten Scott Thomas gives appropriate steadfastness to Julia, who is also torn when she finds out she’s pregnant while investigating Sarah’s story. All of the real life swirling around her – the apartment, her husband, the husband’s family – become secondary to Sarah’s truth, and the way she maneuvers the character reveals an honesty about nurturing a life’s work so much that it becomes more important than the life itself.

The recreation of the Vel’d’Hiv round-up is horribly accurate. The director interviewed actual participants of the period and manufactured the environment of the stadium based on two notions of what they remembered – the noise and the smell. The stadium itself had long been torn down, but by using a era-appropriate outdoor stadium and rendering the rest of it with modern-day digital exactness, the Vel’d’Hiv was brought back to life in a way that demands attention to what happened there.

Without the perfect child actor to play Sarah, the story could never have been communicated correctly, and Mélusine Mayance was that perfect child. She was so effective in her obsession regarding freeing her brother, even during a bout of ill health while at the camp. She expresses her anger at the situation naturally, especially during a scene where she dresses down her father for not trusting her instinct. The journey to the final destination of her brother’s fate is managed inherently by the talented actress.

Kristen Scott Thomas as Julie Shows Evidence of an Incident in ‘Sarah’s Key’
Kristen Scott Thomas as Julie Shows Evidence of an Incident in ‘Sarah’s Key’
Photo credit: The Weinstein Company

There are some soft spots in the story. The aftermath of Sarah’s life after the key is scattered. The adult Sarah is a mystery, and what happens to her is never fully explained. The shoehorning of the post-war scenes are distracting rather than enlightening, as if the scenario lets out a great big sigh. And because this is fiction, some of the elements have a “that’s convenient” veneer to them, especially when the journalist needs to find the proper sources to finalize Sarah’s tale.

But as yet another Holocaust story, Sarah’s Key is more personal, focused and emotionally true. Statistics need to be brought to life, in flesh and blood, for the tearing of that flesh and the spilling of that blood is the reminder that it must not ever happen again.

“Sarah’s Key” has a limited release, including Chicago, on July 29th. See local listings for theaters and show times. Featuring Kristin Scott Thomas, Mélusine Mayance, Aidan Quinn, Frédéric Pierrot, Niels Arestrup and Charlotte Poutrel. Screenplay by Gilles Paquet-Brenner and Serge Joncour. Directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner. Rated “PG-13.” Click here to read the HollywoodChicago.com interview of director Gilles Paquet-Brenner of “Sarah’s Key.”

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2011 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

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