(Elle s'appelait Sarah)

Dir. Gilles Paquet-Brenner. France. 2010.

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Explaining the French role in the Holocaust

Sarah's Key, (French title Elle s'appelait Sarah, 111 min., half or one third in English), is an ambitious, at times touching, but overall disappointingly conventional film about the Holocaust in France and its aftermath and denial (with a present-day follow-up that takes us to the US). Directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner and starring Kristen Scott Thomas, Niels Arestrup, Dominique Frot and others, Sarah's Key contemplates events of World War II in France through the present-day eyes of Julia Jarmond, an inquisitive journalist of mixed background with a French husband. As Julia, the English-born Scott Thomas, handsome and watchable as ever, does a perfect American accent this time (her character grew up at least partly in America) besides speaking her usual excellent French. Julia is married to a French businessman, Édouard Tezac (Michel Duchaussoy), and lives and works in Paris. As her story begins, she is researching a long magazine article about the deportation of Jews in 1942 by the Vichy government. Her investigations reveal that her French in-laws' apartment in the Marais has a questionable wartime past to which they are directly connected, a past that we are allowed key glimpses of. Concurrently, Julia's story is intermingled with intense flashbacks to 1942 and Sarah Starzynski (Mélusine Mayance), a young Jewish girl taken away with her mother from that very Paris flat, which then was theirs. Before they go she hides her little brother in a closet of the flat and leaves him behind. Julia discovers that this vacated flat was taken over immediately by her French in-laws, who have occupied it ever since.

This film, with its sense of complicity and powerlessness, reviews scenes that all the French need to know about, especially the far-worse-than-the-Superdome roundup and temporary confinement of thousands of Jews known as "La rafle du Vélodrome d'Hiver" or "Vél d'Hiv." (Rafle means "roundup.") We learn, if we did not know before, that the Vichy government sent off 77,000 Jews from France to their deaths. (This event is the focus of another new film, Rose Bosch's La Rafle, released in France March 10, 2010, seven months before Sarah's Key.) The presence of a pair of historically ignorant young people on Jarmond's magazine staff gives the film the opportunity to point out bluntly that the French did this, and not the Nazis. But this is the whole trouble with the present-day parts of Sarah's Key: they are too obviously lecturing us.

The screenplay was adapted by Serge Joncour and Gilles Paquet-Brenner from the bestselling novel by Tatiana de Rosnay, a journalist and writer with a French mother and an English father. Like Kristin Scott Thomas' character, Rosnay has lived in France and America. In an epilogue, Julia has a friendly meeting with William Rainsferd (Aiden Quinn), an American relative who knew nothing about Sarah's story but now has embraced it after a period of denial. Earlier, Julia's discovery about her French in-laws' family apartment contributes to a rift with her husband, but another conflict arises over having a child. She has miraculously become pregnant at 45 after years of fruitless effort. Édouard thinks they're too old to be parents now and insists that she end the pregnancy. She is determined not to, and the combined disagreements lead Julia to break with Édouard and go to live in the United States.

The dramatic story of the little Jewish girl that is threaded through the first third of the film at times strains credulity. The link between the Tezac family and Sarah's comes down to a key and a hidden boy. The narrative of two little girls escaping from French police and agents of the pro-Nazi Vichy government is miraculous. The girls are rescued by a farmer couple, Jules and Geneviève Dufaure, two colorful oddballs played by two distinctive actors, Niels Arestrup and Dominique Frot. If only they had had more screen time the film might have bloomed. Some French critics found the odd characters and narrative coincidences to be appealing flourishes; some viewers may share that feeling. It's tough, though, for a new movie to survive comparison with the likes ofSchindler's List or The Garden of the Finzi Contini. The fact is that despite its important subject matter and quirky moments, this is a conventional, laborious film whose screenplay introduces a few too many implausible elements in its effort to teach us a lesson about World War II French history.

But perhaps its greatest failure as a film is the way Sarah's Key ultimately shrinks from telling Sarah's story in full. Once it gets through the miraculous escape and rescue by the kindly couple, the movie abandons its emblematic figure and turns to other things. We know that Sarah is saved by the Dufaures, lives with them, and has a whole other life later on. But what it was like for her to grow up after losing her family to the French edition of the Holocaust, the inner pressures and torments of survival guilt -- these are rich emotional and historical topics Sarah's Key shies away from.

The French complicity in the Nazi persecution of European Jews is a story the French need to acknowledge. There are signs that French collaboration is still shrouded in a cloud of denial in some quarters, and in that sense this is an important story. It's interesting that the present day protagonist Julia Jarmond, like the author Tatiana de Rosnay, is a person of mixed background, with one foot in France and another in the English-speaking world, and thus able to look at this complicity with a certain detachment. Rosnay must have thought the casting of Scott Thomas perfect. But the narrative structure is too obviously didactic. Julia's investigation gives us a show-and-tell lecture about the deportations. Julia visits a French Holocaust center and has the apartment looked up. She and William Rainsferd get hold of revealing letters that fill in the story of the Tejacs (who come out better than she'd feared) and Sarah's troubled life. However well-acted, good-looking, and polished the film, it is weighted down by its too-clear didactic purpose.

Sarah's Key opened in the US on July 22, 2011, in the UK August 5.

Copyright © by
Chris Knipp

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