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Sarah's Key

A movie directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner

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When Journalism Gets Personal

  • Jul 23, 2011
Star Rating:

Sarah’s Key, based on the novel by Tatiana de Rosnay, is frustrating in that it doesn’t explore a little known chapter in history. Instead, it uses it as a catalyst for a competently paced but strangely unsatisfying mystery. I’m referring to the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup of 1942, a Nazi-ordered mass arrest in Paris in which the French police were complicit. According to records, they rounded up over 13,000 people – mainly women and children – and transferred them to the Vélodrome d’Hiver, a former indoor bicycle racing track located a short distance away from the Eiffel Tower. Because it was one of several attempts at reducing the Jewish population in occupied France, many of those arrested were ultimately shipped to Auschwitz to be exterminated. The roundup accounted for more than a quarter of the 42,000 Jews sent from France, and when the war was over, just over 800 of them returned home.
The film freely shifts back and forth between two eras of history. During each period, we’re told two interconnected yet completely different stories. The first takes place in 1942. We meet a ten-year-old girl named Sarah Starzynski (Mélusine Mayance), who, along with her parents, is arrested and taken to the Vélodrome d’Hiver. Before being taken away, Sarah hides her little brother, Michel (Paul Mercier), in a locked closet; she instructs him to stay put and wait until she returns. She certainly had the best of intentions, but it’s obvious that she didn’t think this through. How could she have known when or even if she would return? How could she have believed she would just happen to find someone that could help her? Even if she did manage to find someone, how could that person help? As the months pass – during which she’s forever
separated from her parents, sent to another camp, befriended by child prisoner, able to escape, and taken in by a kindly older couple – the likelihood of a happy reunion grows dimmer.

The second story takes place in 2009. We meet an American-born French journalist named Julia (Kristen Scott Thomas). A few years ago, she wrote an article on the sixtieth anniversary of the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup; her interest in the subject is renewed when her husband, Bertrand (Frédéric Pierrot), inherits the apartment Sarah and her family once lived in. It’s obvious from records that Sarah survived the Holocaust, but apart from that, absolutely nothing is known about her. Julia, believing she might still be alive, is determined to track her down. Her father-in-law, Édouard (Michel Duchaussoy), for reasons he doesn’t immediately make known, doesn’t want her to dig too deeply into the past. Her quest for knowledge takes her from France to New York to Italy, where she meets an American man named William (Aidan Quinn). Because he’s introduced at an advanced stage of the plot, I will refrain from describing him in detail. I’ll say this much: Unlike Julia, who’s seeking the truth, he’s unaware that there’s any truth to seek out.
Julia is determined, no question, although her reasons for being that way remain a little obscure. I’m well aware that a journalist’s job is to get to the bottom of things, but in her case, there’s clearly something else at work; she has made this into a personal mission. Maybe for her, the crusade lies not in the truth, but merely in getting at the truth – she obsesses over the process, perhaps because it’s the most stimulating part of the job. That still doesn’t account for her fixation on Sarah, who’s connected to Julia’s family in the most indirect of ways.

When the mystery is solved and all the questions have been answered, we’re left to wonder how Julia is better off for having made this journey. We may also find ourselves a little disappointed, seeing as Sarah’s story is not particularly engaging. This isn’t to suggest that it isn’t compelling or emotional, because they are both. I think the issue here is that I’m accustomed to mysteries of this sort being ... just a bit more cinematic. The thing is, not every story has to be written as a mystery. Some historical accounts work fine as just that: Accounts.
We learn fairly early on that Julia is pregnant. You’d think this would make Bertrand happy, but in fact, he laments about how he’s too old to be a father. In no uncertain terms, he insists that Julia have an abortion. Her sister’s reaction is equally astounding; during a phone conversation, all she can do is criticize Julia for being a pregnant older woman. The only one who’s even remotely happy for her is her twelve-year-old daughter, Zoe (Karina Hin), and even then, she can only make a joke about how she won’t be changing any diapers. As appropriately dramatic as this subplot is, it left me wondering what if anything it had to do with Sarah’s story, apart from a line of dialogue reserved for the final scene. So far as I can tell, it was a superfluous layer of storytelling. I think if Sarah’s Key had avoided the conventions of the cross-generational mystery, it would have been a much more interesting film. Its real focus should have been the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup, simply because it’s an historical event far too many people are unfamiliar with.


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July 23, 2011
I like Kristen Scott Thomas! Despite your less than impressive rating, I do still want to see this one.
July 23, 2011
It's not a terrible movie. I just wanted something better. But what do I know? I'm in the minority with my opinion.
More Sarah's Key reviews
review by . March 12, 2012
posted in Movie Hype
This big screen adaptation of Tatiana De Rosnay's novel "Sarah's Key," directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner in some way presents the Holocaust awareness message with greater simplicity and impact than its written counterpart. However, sadly, both the novel and the film's major plot line of Sarah and her key is rectified around the halfway mark of both pieces. As the murkier central story of a journalist whose marital issues and unplanned pregnancy shifts the mass horror of the Vel D'Hiv roundup into …
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Chris Pandolfi ()
Ranked #5
Growing up a shy kid in a quiet suburb of Los Angeles, Chris Pandolfi knows all about the imagination. Pretend games were always the most fun for him, especially on the school playground; he and his … more
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An intrepid journalist brings the past to life in this gripping drama. An American based in Paris, Julia Jarmond (Tell No One's Kristin Scott Thomas) has been working on a piece about a French atrocity while planning to move into an apartment that belongs to her husband Bertrand's family. During the course of her research, she finds that 10-year-old Sarah Starzynski (Mélusine Mayance, a sparky presence) lived in the same Marais flat until 1942 when French authorities wrenched Jewish citizens from their homes during the notorious Vél d'Hiver Roundup (Julia's daughter is only a year older). Unbeknownst to anyone but her parents, Sarah locked up her 4-year-old brother in a hidden closet in hopes of returning to set him free him later, but the trio ends up in a transit camp en route to Auschwitz. Sarah will eventually escape, but the years to come will not be easy. In adapting Tatiana de Rosnay's novel, director Gilles Paquet-Brenner, the son of a deportee, moves back and forth between Sarah and Julia, who finds out she's pregnant in the midst of trips to Florence and New York, but Bertrand doesn't share her joy. A French farmer (A Prophet's Niels Arestrup) and a food writer (Aidan Quinn) also figure into Sarah's story, which merges with Julia's as she finds a way to carry on her legacy. Much as inJulie and Julia, the past proves more compelling than the present, though Scott Thomas holds the narrative together with the force ...
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