Friday, August 19, 2011

Sarah's Key: Unlocking a grim past

Sarah's Key (2010) • View trailer for Sarah's Key
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang

Curiosity, we all eventually learn, can be highly dangerous.

Sarah's Key, adapted by director Gilles Paquet-Brenner from French author Tatiana de Rosnay's novel — which occupied the New York Times bestseller list for 120 weeks — is a melancholy, deeply moving but at times unbearably sad drama. De Rosnay's story reminds us that the past, particularly the uncomfortable past, never really goes away ... nor should it.
Seeking the sense of past horrors she cannot wholly grasp, Julia (Kristin Scott
Thomas) visits the Parisian Holocaust Memorial, where she hopes to, in the
words of a man she meets there, "get away from the figures and statistics, to
give a face and reality to each of these lives."

Paquet-Brenner's adaptation of this story — he co-wrote the script with Serge Joncour — is fueled by two unforgettable performances: the always magnificent Kristin Scott Thomas, as a modern woman increasingly obsessed by her search for truth; and Mélusine Mayance, absolutely riveting as young Sarah.

And while these characters and events are fictitious, they're set against a horrific historic event — the notorious 1942 Vel' d'Hiv round-up in France — that exposes yet another Holocaust atrocity probably not too well known in this country.

It's simply impossible to wrap our modern, sheltered, comfortable brains around the stark reality of what the French did to their own citizens; we can only shake our heads with disbelief. And yet, as Scott Thomas' Julia Jarmond says, at one point, how can we know what we would have done, under identical circumstances, if given a choice between complicity and likely death?

Armchair bravery is easy. God forbid it ever should be put to such a ghastly test.

Paquet-Brenner's film occupies two timelines. The first opens on July 16, 1942, as waves of French policemen and civil servants — cooperating with an order from their Nazi occupiers — begin arresting what ultimately becomes more than 13,000 Jewish citizens. Sarah Starzynski (Mayance) is playing with her younger brother in their shared bedroom, when the authoritative knock comes at the door; thinking swiftly, the girl locks the little boy into a concealed cupboard — the "secret hiding place" — and cautions him to remain quiet, promising to come back and let him out later.

Sarah and her parents are hauled off to the nearby Vélodrome d'Hiver, where they join thousands of other detainees stuffed into the filthy, smelly, unsanitary confines of a structure never intended to hold so many people. Sarah develops a fever and falls ill; nobody can help her.

A few days later, now quite sick, the girl and her parents are relocated to the Drancy internment camp, where children are separated from their parents. Despite her illness, Sarah never loses her grip on the precious key to that cupboard.

The plight of Sarah and her family unfolds in stages, intercut with contemporary scenes that follow Julia, an expatriate American journalist living in Paris with her husband, Bertrand (Frédéric Pierrot), and their teenage daughter. Julia works for a high-tone magazine; she's given the opportunity to craft a lengthy feature story on the Vel' d'Hiv raids. She relishes this chance to shine a fresh spotlight on historic behavior so appalling that French President Jacques Chirac eventually publicly apologized for it, in 1995.

When not consumed by massive corporate business deals, Bertrand supervises the remodeling of the flat previously occupied by his parents, intending to transform it into luxurious living quarters for his own family. Through sheer chance, Julia's research uncovers a few details about the Starzynskis; she begins to suspect — and then actively fear — that the flat occupied by her in-laws for so many decades, and now soon to become her own home, once held Sarah and her family.

Which begs the awful question: How, precisely, did her in-laws obtain the flat, during those turbulent WWII days?

Paquet-Brenner builds inexorable suspense into both timelines. In 1942, young Sarah, finally recovered from her illness, becomes increasingly frantic in her efforts to escape from Drancy, knowing that she must return home and free her little brother from the concealed cupboard. This panicky desire — which, ironically, is helping keep her alive — is seemingly impossible; Sarah doesn't know that, within days, everybody in the camp will be shipped to Auschwitz for extermination.

In the present day, Julia certainly isn't in mortal danger, but she worries that what she'll learn may shred the fabric of her family just as irrevocably. Worse yet, she's unexpectedly pregnant — a "miracle," after years of effort to have another child — but Bertrand, although a good man, is uncomfortable about the timing of this new addition to their lives.

Julia's younger colleagues warn that she has become obsessed, and that it might be more prudent to let sleeping dogs lie. But she cannot.

Scott Thomas, an extremely busy actress, came to our attention with a supporting role in 2004's Four Weddings and a Funeral and her subsequent starring role in 2006's unforgettable — and equally heartbreaking — The English Patient. Since then, she has divided her professional efforts between films made in the United States, England and France; she's completely bilingual and immediately believable in roles based in either country.

Her work here is restrained and largely internal, Julia's driven intensity accompanied by an increasingly apprehensive set to her face, her entire body. We've seen this side of Scott Thomas before, in 2008's I've Loved You So Long, which followed a woman's effort to rebuild her life after a 15-year prison term. Similarly, smiles do not come easily to Julia; she may feign cheerfulness, but something darker lurks behind her eyes.

Paquet-Brenner, recognizing Scott Thomas' power, is content to let his camera linger on her for long, extended stretches. At one point, Julia visits the Parisian Holocaust Memorial; the scene is quietly powerful, as she strolls by herself through rooms and corridors filled with thousands of photographs.

Scott Thomas explains, in the press notes, that she refrained from any earlier visits, wanting Paquet-Brenner's camera to capture her spontaneous reaction.

Despite Scott Thomas' ability to hold our full attention, Paquet-Brenner is careful not to let her dominate the film; the balance must be maintained, particularly since Sarah's plight, in 1942, is so staggeringly, inconceivably overwhelming.

Paquet-Brenner probably needn't have worried; young Mayance is so ferociously credible, so desperately authentic, that the young actress seems genuinely consumed by her role; she becomes Sarah. Our hearts lurch every time the crucial key briefly leaves her fingers, because we're wholly involved with her need to retain it. In a word, Mayance is riveting.

We don't spend quite enough time with Pierrot's Bertrand; we never quite get a bead on his relationship with Julia. She didn't take his name, which suggests a certain distance; at times, Bertrand seems uncomfortable in his wife's presence, as if he wonders whether she's ever truly, wholly at his side. While the nature of their relationship informs what eventually happens, we're left with unanswered questions; de Rosnay undoubtedly covered this better in her book.

All other performances are strong, starting with Natasha Mashkevich and Arben Bajraktaraj, as Sarah's parents. Sarah Ber is memorable as Rachel, a girl who befriends our Sarah at Drancy. Michel Duchaussoy is equally compelling as Julia's father-in-law, who grows to fear what her research may uncover.

Ultimately, building suspense on two levels only succeeds if we're satisfied by the respective resolutions. I'm not sure that'll be the case here; there is such a thing as being too depressing.

Stories of this nature generally require that we invest our hope in the salvation of at least one character: often not the person we expect. De Rosnay's novel spent more time with a sidebar individual who appears here almost as an afterthought; he is, I suspect, the character whose fate is intended to matter the most.

That's a hard sell, given the time spent with Julia and Sarah, and the degree to which Paquet-Brenner and co-scripter Serge Joncour augment the latter's storyline, greatly expanding upon what happens to her in the book.

While Sarah's Key is compelling, powerful and unforgettable, it's not terribly satisfying: a distinction likely to diminish its impact over time. Some will view this film as unduly cruel, and I can't argue the point.

Even so, many images are haunting: most notably that of Sarah's haggard, frightened and desperate little face. I'll not soon forget that.

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