Engrossing 'Sarah's Key' Unlocks the Past
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Between the grotesque, willfully ignorant fairy-tale mongering of "Life Is Beautiful" to the deck-stacked special-pleading moral relativism of "The Reader," some filmgoers have rightly learned to be afraid, be very afraid, whenever Harvey Weinstein attaches his name to a Holocaust-themed motion picture. So I don't know that I can be blamed for approaching "Sarah's Key" -- directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner and adapted by Paquet-Brenner and Serge Joncour from a novel by Tatiana de Rosnay, and being released here in the States by The Weinstein Company -- with some measure of dread. The story is of a present-day journalist who, in investigating one of the great untold occasions of France's collusion with the German "Final Solution" of World War II, discovers not only how the family she married into was tied into a nation's largely covered-up disgrace, but also how the very apartment in Paris she and her husband are moving into figures in one deported family's tale.
The movie begins with an adult woman's voice-over saying, "Sometimes our own stories are the ones we can never tell." The visual here is of a little girl, under bedcovers, at innocent play, giggling. Then, on the soundtrack, a knock on the door. A banging, more like. And because it's Paris, and because it's 1942, we know it's something pretty bad, like Nazis, because in movies it's pretty much only Nazis and psycho exes who knock on doors quite that loudly. So far, so Harvey Weinstein's kind of Holocaust movie.
And in many ways it continues thusly, remaining largely very scrupulously tasteful, even as it depicts the horrific and disgusting conditions at the Vel d'Hiv, the Paris bicycling track where over 10,000 Parisian Jews were confined for several days. There were no lavatories in the place, and the windows were sealed. From there the captives were shipped to death camps. One could, and many have, argued that in depicting such horror good taste is not just beside the point but insulting; others insist that such things ought never be simulated at all. Yet, here they are, being depicted just so, and one could enumerate other possible sins or ostensible errors of judgment the film commits. However, as fictions pertaining to our contemporary understanding of the Holocaust go (and maybe I should put that as "pertaining to the possibility of our contemporary understanding of the Holocaust"), "Sarah's Key" winds up being not bad at all, because it doesn't shilly-shally about issues pertaining to guilt and culpability. It's also pretty engrossing in the way that it depicts a stranger and her history and the impact it has on an individual who never knew her.
At the picture's beginning, Kristin Scott Thomas's journalist character, Julia Jarmond, has a relatively ideal movie life. A transplanted American, she's settling in Paris with her good-looking, smart and very French husband and their charming adolescent daughter. They have the usual first-world bourgeois problems in the changing media landscape blah-blah-blah, but nothing a few plot bends can't handle. She takes on a story about the Vel d'Hiv not quite as a lark, but you can tell she gets a certain old-school pleasure out of one-upping her younger colleagues at the new magazine she's writing for, who've never even heard of the place. The film alternates her work on the piece with awful scenes from the life of Sarah, the young girl in the opening scene, who hides her younger brother in her apartment's closet when the police take her and her family away, and clutches that key for dear life, as she's processed through the hellhole of the velodrome, transported to the countryside, makes a daring escape, and is delivered through the kindness of an older couple, never forgetting her mission. The story is tight and engrossing enough that it's worth not giving away here, but it isn't a spoiler to say that, yes, the "charming" old apartment that Julia and her husband inherit from an aunt on the husband's side is the one from which Sarah and her family were wrenched during the war.
The deeper Julia digs, the more upsetting her findings, and things progress to the extent that her own cozy life is pretty much completely upended. The discovery that she's newly pregnant, conventionally considered a joyous one, actually contributes to the intra-familial roiling. In addition, she manages to throw the lives of several other families out of their orbits. The film rather resourcefully depicts the way history, so often seen as an abstraction or a collection of facts that has been safely stored away and has lost the power to effect a rebuilt state of things, still resonates and does damage. And the film is rather unconventional in arguing that sometimes the damage it does is necessary: that facing uncomfortable truths and putting unquiet spirits to some kind of rest is far more important than comfortably moving past them.
It's in these respects that Paquet-Brenner's writing and directing do their jobs best, and of course he is aided immeasurably by a spectacular cast. Scott Thomas is remarkably subtle and insinuatingly intelligent in her portrayal. The child actors, particularly of course Mélusine Mayance as the young Sarah, are all terrific and terrifically affecting. But they don't walk away with the movie. Those honors go to the veteran Niels Arestrup, who doesn't oversell moral upstandingness as one half of a brave couple who become Sarah's co-conspirators, and the underemployed and often indifferently used Aidan Quinn, who shows up late in the film as an entirely unexpected character and makes the most of his brief screen time as a middle-aged man who's gone through life with no idea of what he's lost.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.