Critic’s Pick: Sarah’s Key (Elle s’appelait Sarah)

Courtesy photo

Julia (Kristin Scott Thomas) is a present-day American journalist working for a magazine in Paris. During an editorial meeting discussing her upcoming story on the 1942 Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup (when more than 13,000 Jews in Nazi-occupied France were detained and sent to Auschwitz), a photographer wonders why there is not a single photograph of those who were arrested and temporarily held at the Vélodrome d’Hivers. A puzzling fact, especially considering that the Nazis “documented everything, that’s what they were known for.”

“Mike,” Julia interjects. “This was not the Germans. It was the French.”

In 1995, French president Jacques Chirac (1995-2007) finally apologized for the French police’s role in the raids, but it came far too late (and he only acknowledged “nearly 10,000” arrests).

Thus begins Julia’s search for Sarah, a woman who, as a 10-year-old, lost her family in the raid under more-than-horrific circumstances (the young Sarah is played by a terrific Mélusine Mayance; the adult one by a mysteriously beautiful Charlotte Poutrel). The journalist gradually discovers that she is much closer to the tragedy than she had realized.

The movie is disturbingly intense, but far from perfect. The raid and concentration camp scenes use hand-held camera jitters and fast cross-cutting for dramatic effect, as if the horrific nature of what’s taking place wasn’t enough; the first part of the movie (vacillating between present and past) feels as if someone is repeatedly poking us with a stick every 10 minutes. The images are disturbing and, except for a single kind-hearted cop, the French police’s bad traits are needlessly exaggerated. Moreover, at key moments, a hyper-sentimentality takes over and the movie enters the usual manipulating territory that is meant to provoke a quick tear, not a hard thing to do if you’re talking about the Holocaust.

Similar stories about women who begin suspecting their reality is tied to a horrible past no one wants to discuss have been tackled with more grace in films like Argentina’s The Official Story (Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Film in 1986). Yet, Thomas is in her usual superb form (as is the rest of the cast) and the story keeps you guessing and wanting for more.

The story of the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup needed to be told, and that’s why this gorgeously photographed film (based on the best-selling novel by Tatiana de Rosnay), flaws and all, also needs to be seen.

Sarah's Key (Elle s'appelait Sarah)

Dir. Gilles Paquet-Brenner; writ. Tatiana De Rosnay, Serge Joncour, Gilles Paquet-Brenner; feat. Kristin Scott Thomas, Mélusine Mayance, Niels Arestrup, Charlotte Poutrel, Aidan Quinn. (PG-13)

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