May 15, 2015

Review: Elle s'appelait Sarah [Sarah's Key] (2010)

Sarah's Key is based on the novel of the same name by Tatiana de Rosnay. It's a two plot book focusing on a young Jewish girl named Sarah in France during the Vel' d'Hiv Roundup in 1942 as a modern-day journalist tries to find out what happened to her and her family. Yes, Sarah's Key is a Holocaust movie, but from the French side of things after becoming occupied by Germany which is definitely something different.

Kristin Scott Thomas stars as Julia Jarmond and she's always struck me as a talented and fascinating actress. Born in the UK, she eventually moved to Paris where she still lives to this day. Completely fluent in French, she's carved out a little niche for herself in French cinema which is pretty cool. Being able to switch back and forth from English to French is a great skill to have in real life, but it opens up some pretty interesting possibilities for movie roles as well.


At a Glance

Genre: drama, war
Directed by: Gilles Paquet-Brenner
Produced by: Stéphane Marsil, Gaetan Rousseau, Clément Sentilhes
Written by: Serge Joncour, Gilles Paquet-Brenner
Music by: Max Richter
Running time: 111 minutes
Production company: Hugo Productions, Studio 37, TF1 Droits Audiovisuels, etc.
Distributed by: UGC Distribution, StudioCanal, The Weinstein Company, etc.
Country: France
Language: French, English, Italian, German, Yiddish
Budget: €10,000,000
Box office: $21,118,093 (Worldwide)

IMDb entry
Rotten Tomatoes entry

Starring: Kristin Scott Thomas, Mélusine Mayance, Niels Arestrup, Frédéric Pierrot, Michel Duchaussoy, Dominique Frot, Natasha Mashkevich, Gisèle Casadesus, Aidan Quinn, Sarah Ber, Arben Bajraktaraj, Karina Hin, James Gerard, Joseph Rezwin, Kate Moran, Paul Mercier 



Following France's defeat in World War II, ten year-old Sarah Starzynski's (Mélusine Mayance) family gets rounded up along with other Jews in Germany occupied Paris. Not expecting to be held captive for very long, Sarah had the idea of locking her younger brother Michel (Paul Mercier) in a secret closet back at home. Sarah and her family are eventually transported to Beaune-la-Rolande internment camp, leaving Michel trapped. Fast forward to the future, Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas) tries to find out what happened to Sarah and her family.



Gilles Paquet-Brenner and his team deserve credit in creating a very believable WWII-era France. The atrocious conditions of the Vélodrome d'Hiver where the Paris Jews were first brought to are very obvious too. With so many people gathered in one area unable to leave, it's far from pleasant. It's hot, it smells and people are falling ill or simply panicking. People living around the Vélodrome had to close their windows for days due to the stench. 

The slice of history that Sarah's Key presents is certainly eye-opening. At the same time it can also be emotionally painful as all Holocaust movies usually end up being. There's a scene in particular where the Jews have been transported to the Beaune-la-Rolande internment camp and the children are being separated from their mothers that's particularly hard to watch. I can't think of anything much crueler than ripping children from their mothers. I'd say that Paquet-Brenner dwells on this scene for a good amount of time without going too overboard.

There are many more emotionally draining scenes to be digested in Sarah's Key besides the one I described. Not all of them are as powerful though and I do have to admit that some of them cross the melodrama line on occasion. The other thing is that it feels strange to see modern-day drama mixed in with drama from one of the greatest human tragedies of all time. The kinds of things that Julia Jarmond has to contend with seem so trivial and muted with the atrocities Sarah and her family have to go through.

All the same, Kristin Scott Thomas easily carries her scenes. She switches from English to French without a second thought she displays that keen curiosity her character needs without a problem. Unfortunately though, the modern scenes of Sarah's Key just don't have the same punch as those in the past. There are a few occasions where past and present meet and they feel about on par, but those moments are rare. Overall, the modern scenes feel more like a breather before going back to what's really interesting. 

The rest of the acting in Sarah's Key is also quite good. That doesn't include Aidan Quinn though who thoroughly drops the ball. It's maybe a bit of a personal preference, but I've never really seen a Quinn performance that I've liked so far in my limited opportunities of seeing him on-screen. He's flamboyantly unpleasant in the depiction of his character and he also seems incapable of selling emotion when he needs to. He's not in SK very much thankfully.

Sarah's Key is a Holocaust movie from an angle that I've never seen before. It's shocking to think that the French willingly participated in rounding up Jews and eventually sent them to German concentration camps. It's not something that was really covered in my Canadian history lessons in high school anyway. Performances are strong (barring Quinn of course) and there are some particularly heart-wrenching scenes to be "enjoyed." Melodrama isn't far away a lot of the time though and the modern-day scenes do seem a bit extraneous. SK is still worth a watch if you're in the mood for something serious though.



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