© 2010 Hugo Productions

Sarah’s Key (2010)

OK, on to day two of the week of preview screenings leading up to The Tokyo International Film Festival, which kicks off next week. It is a nice treat to be able to see a film up to a year or even more before it gets a full release in Japan.

There have now been so many films about the Holocaust that they now constitute a genre unto themselves. For a filmmaker working in the genre, it must be a challenge to create something new, and to find a way to link the story to modern audiences. Sarah’s Key, based on Tatiana de Rosnay’s bestselling novel, does an admirable job of meeting these challenges by unfolding two stories which seem completely separate but become more and more intertwined with each passing scene. In one story, Kristin Scott Thomas plays Julia, an American journalist based in Paris and getting more and more involved in an article she is researching on the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup of 1942, in which 13,000 French Jews were arrested and housed in an indoor cycling racetrack while they awaited deportation to concentration camps. When the journalist tells her colleagues that there is only photograph of the roundup to illustrate the article, they are surprised. “I thought the German documented everything,” replies a young writer. “These were not the Nazis,” she informs him. “These were the French.”  Inspired by Jacques Chirac’s official apology for French complacency in the deportment of French Jews, she digs deeper and uncovers the story of Sarah (Mélusine Mayance), a girl who attempts to save her brother when her family is arrested by locking him a hidden closet with the plan of returning with the titular key to let him out. When she is sent off to a camp, she is still determined to return and free him.

As Julia becomes more and more involved with her research, trekking to New York and Italy, her relationship with her busy French architect husband (Frédéric Pierrot) is puttering out. Her husband’s plan to build their dream home for them and their teenage daughter by renovating the old apartment he inherited from his parents, and her desire to have another baby, are not enough to put a spark back in the relationship. She then uncovers something that links the two stories together.

While Thomas does not seem the least bit American, she plays the part well and speaks what seems to be perfect French. Mélusine Mayance, who plays young Sarah in the flashbacks, brings pathos to a very challenging role. With large-scale reconstructions of historical events and filming in New York and Florence, not to mention an international cast of top actors, this must have been one of the most expensive French films ever produced. The production values help underscore the enormity of the 1942 Roundup, but the story is really told in the plot construction and editing which tie the two stories together.

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