Thursday, August 18, 2011

Sarah's Key

Sarah’s Key,” a starkly photographed French film (subtitled in English), is compelling for most of its 111 minutes running time.  Each of its two storylines is a microcosm focusing on individuals living through their time:  Paris, summer 1942, the Vel’ d’Hiv Round-up and its victims; Paris sixty years later when the French must live with that ugly bit of history and its consequences.  While the screenplay by Gilles Paquet-Brenner and Serge Joncour is probably faithful to the novel on which it is based (by Tatiana De Rosnay), half its story (that set in the present day) is just not as engaging as the other half. 

A little history:  One year into the Nazi occupation of France, the Nazis pushed forward their “Operation Spring Wind,” in which they instructed the French to round up adult, foreign-born Jews and deport them.  The conquered French were overly enthusiastic in their implementation, and dragged men, women, and children, including French-born Jews, first to the Vélodrome d’Hiver (an indoor cycle track and stadium with no water, no functioning toilets, insufficient medical personnel and supplies, and far too many people), thence to transit camps and finally to the concentration camps, primarily Auschwitz.
Kristin Scott Thomas as Julia Jarmond in present-day Paris.

The film opens delightfully. Warm white light, children playing, their laughter is the film’s soundtrack.  The end of the film showing a silent child is devastating.  The present day section is brilliantly led by Kristin Scott Thomas, but even she cannot make journalist Julia Jarmond and her family as engrossing as Sarah Starzynski and her family.  What’s interesting is the history Julia’s researching, in which she discovers that the former residents of her in-laws’ apartment were a Jewish family deported during the Vel’ d’Hiv Round-up in the summer of 1942.  She learns about the Starzynskis and becomes obsessed with little Sarah.

There are several fine performances in this film, but three are exceptional:
-         The radiant Ms. Scott Thomas as Julia Jarmond, an American in Paris for two decades, she is a journalist married to a Frenchman, with an adolescent daughter.  Her research for an article on the Vel’ d’Hiv leads to a quest to find, or at least find out what happened to the child Sarah.
-         Mélusine Mayance is splendid as 10-year-old Sarah Starzynski, a French Jew living in Paris with her parents and younger brother Michel.  She’s a terrific kid, strong and brave and resolute in her own quest to return to her brother.
-         Natasha Mashkevich is just superb as Sarah’s mother. She’s heard the rumors that the French police plan a mass arrest of Jews, so the moment that pounding on the door begins, she starts a freefall into panic.  She acquiesces to her daughter’s calm plan, gathers most of her family to her, and slowly shatters as the French police -- not the Nazis -- tear husbands from wives and mothers from children.  Beautiful, heart-wrenching work.
Mélusine Mayance as Sarah Starzynski in 1942.

This is not to say these are the only ones, but they stand out in a good cast.  The farm couple who aid Sarah are just wonderful.  The set of their shoulders tells all about the year of Nazi occupation and collaborators among their neighbors.  Dominique Frot as Mme Dufaure has a wonderful face, careworn and warm.  I’ll be interested in seeing her other side in another role.  Niels Arestrup as Jules Dufaure is gruff and grandfatherly and quietly heroic. It was also a pleasant surprise to see Aidan Quinn as an American living in Italy.  I'll say no more than that.

English speaking sections seem stilted, as if director Gilles Paquet-Brenner didn’t quite get what the actors were saying.  I imagine that the NY and Italy sections read better than they play here.  As the film switches back and forth between Sarah’s story in the past and the secondary one having to do with Julia’s own life and family, I kept yearning to go back to Sarah’s as, I suspect, did Julia.
(c) 2010 Hugo Productions, Studio 37, and the Weinstein Co.

While the particular story of Sarah Starzynski is fiction, the Vel’ d’Hiv Round-up of July 1942 was real.  The French police overzealously complied with the instructions of their Nazi occupiers.  Sarah’s Key” is worth your time, so I’m not going to tell the whole plot here.  Suffice it to say Sarah’s story is riveting and representative of the horrors of that time, when the human face of France looked in a mirror and saw monsters in addition to the better-known heroes of the Resistance.

~ Molly Matera, signing off.  Think I’ll go read a book.

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