Sarah’s Key *
Directed by: Gilles Paquet-Brenner.
Written by: Serge Joncour and Gilles Paquet-Brenner based on the novel by Tatiana De Rosnay.
Starring: 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).
Sarah’s Key tells an important, little known chapter of French WWII history, yet the film is ruined because it seems far more interested in the story of an upper class American woman digging into the past – and the pain SHE feels – rather than focusing on what should have been the heart of the story. In July 1942, French police rounded up over 13,000 Jewish residents – including many women and children – and shipped them off to a stadium where they stayed for days on end, before being loaded onto trains and shipped to Auschwitz. This wasn’t the Germans doing the rounding up, but the French, and as such, there is little documentation of what actually happened that July. The so called Vel' d'Hiv Roundup is barely mentioned, and few people even know about it, but it remains a shameful moment in French history.
Had Sarah’s Key told the story of the Vel d’Hiv roundup, it could have been an excellent film. But instead, the movie is much more focused on Julia Jarmond (Kristen Scott Thomas), an American journalist living in France with her husband and teenage daughter. She is about to move into her husband’s family flat, as his mother is aging and being put into a home, and she just so happens to be working on a story about the Vel d’Hiv roundup. When she discovers that the family moved into the flat in August 1942, she grows suspicious, and starts to dig around to try and discover who owned the flat before them. In while digging that she discovers the story of Sarah Starzynski, a young girl who was taken with her parents in the roundup. In an effort to protect her younger brother Michel, she locks him in a secret hiding place before they are arrested. She is determined to get back to him – but as the hours grow to days grow to weeks, it doesn’t look good. But Sarah is still determined.
I have two major problems with Sarah’s Key – one for each of the time periods the film depicts. The 1942 story is so shamefully manipulative that what should have you shocked or in tears, comes across as heavy handed. Sarah’s single minded determination to get back to Michel is quite simply not believable – even a child her age has to know that Michel couldn’t possibly survive in a closet for months on end. Her story is never really believable – it plays like, well, a bad movie.
The bigger problem I have is with the segment sent in the present day however. I’m not precisely sure why I am supposed to feel sorry for a character as self involved and self pitying as Julia. As played by Kristen Scott Thomas, Julia is pouty and whiny – seeing everything that happens, or happened to Sarah as the case may be, only as far as it effects herself. I didn’t for a second believe her asshole of a husband would be as big of an asshole as the film depicts him as, and it seems to be that Julia’s whole quest to discover the truth about Sarah isn’t for the altruistic reasons the film would have us believe – but instead simply to prove that she is better than her in-laws. Kristen Scott Thomas is not an actress I have ever really connected to – her screen presence is far too chilly – and this is one of her worst performances.
To me, Sarah’s Key simply does not work. It tries to force an important moment in French history into a story of an American woman who we are supposed to find brave and sympathetic. That the film would use such an important event as the backdrop for such an awful, unbelievable story is unforgivable.