Music Feature

Film Review: Sarah's Key

by Piers Marchant
The French as Nazi sympathizers?

Dir. Gilles Paquet-Brenner
Score: 5.3

Often, you can tell from a given film's movie poster what the filmmakers have in store for you. In Gilles Paquet-Brenner's new film concerning the French authorities aiding and abetting the Germans in rounding up French Jews for the concentration camps, his star, Kristen Scott-Thomas dominates the frame, holding a book and looking pensively up to her left, super-imposed over a much smaller figure standing before the ocean. Would you be surprised in any way to find out, Scott-Thomas' character only appears in the present-day half of the film?

Scott-Thomas plays Julia, a sort of mega-journalist married to Bertrand (Frédéric Pierrot), an equally ambitious and successful French architect. The couple and their young teen daughter plan to move into his aunt's old flat in Paris, but before the husband's massive, modern overhaul can be completed, Julia, in doing research on a big story on the shame of the Nazi-sympathizers in occupied France, discovers a possible deal-breaker. It turns out one of families rousted from their dwelling and sent off to the camps lived in the very flat they plan on moving into. Instantly obsessed with finding the truth behind her in-laws' whitewashing of the affair, she goes on to find even more horrific details about the fate of the former family. The film intercuts Julia's modern-day story -- including an ongoing disagreement with her husband about an unplanned pregnancy -- with extended flashbacks to the Jewish family in question back in 1942, specifically on Sarah (first and most memorably played by Mélusine Mayance), the adolescent daughter, who survives the ordeal by escaping out of the camp and being taken in by a kindly older couple who dress her like a boy.

There's no denying the Holocaust can add volatile jet fuel to a drama, all right, but if it's misused, or simply becomes a backdrop to a melodrama already too strident, the effect can have absolutely the opposite effect than what the filmmakers might have hoped. Paquet-Brenner's film, based on the novel by Tatiana De Rosnay, has the best of intentions but settles far too often for having its characters respond in accordance with a point the film is trying to make, rather than as actual human beings. The narrative is carefully constructed so you primarily follow the course of action 70 years apart between Julia and Sarah, but rather than enhance each other's stories, you instead grow to resent the film's insistence on equating the two women's ordeals. Complaining to your wealthy, successful husband about his overuse of the cellphone doesn't compare favorably in terms of scope, to a young girl ripped away from her family and carrying an overwhelming guilt on her shoulders for the rest of her life.

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