I’m pretty sure that I am not the only viewer whose first reaction to “Elle s'appelait Sarah” (Sarah's Key, 2010, based on Tatiana de Rosnay’s 2007 international best-seller, directed and cowritten by Gilles Paquet-Brenner) was weary wonder whether I needed to see yet another movie about the attempted destruction of the Jews of Europe. Though the most methodical genocide in history, the extermination of European Jews seems to many to have blocked recognition of others, some of which (e.g., the Caribs) were complete.
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I am well aware that the French were (generally) slow to acknowledge their collective and individual responsibility for not merely allowing but actively administering the roundup and transport of Jews to Auschwitz. In Vichy, the unoccupied, southern part of France, the Pétain/Laval regime took the initiative to round up any and all Jews. In occupied Paris, the police, not the occupying army arrested Jews and stored them in conditions that make the Katrina Superdome interlude seem like a picnic in comparison. I think that the main point of the movie is to underline French responsibility for willing collaboration in genocide to please the Nazis. Anti-Semitism was not exactly alien in France before 1942 or 1940, and there were supposed French nationalists who welcomed the Nazis to clear up the Republic which had had a Jewish head (Léon Blum).
The movie shows that in Paris, as elsewhere, most of the Jews went obligingly to the slaughter (though not crediting that they were going to their deaths). An exception is the preteen Sarah Starzynski (Mélusine Mayance) who locked her younger brother in a closet when the gendarmes came and took away Sarah and her mother (Natasha Mashkevich) in the 16-17 July 1942 Vel' d'Hiv (Rafle du Vélodrome d'Hiver) roundup, assembling Paris’ Jews (13,152 of them, 4,051 of these children) in a racetrack.
Six and a half decades later American-born journalist Julia Jarmond (the comfortably bilingual Kristin Scott Thomas), who had written a story on the roundup on its 60thanniversary that was severely cut, is moving into an apartment where her wheeler-dealer husband Bertrand Tezac (Frédéric Pierrot, who also costarred with Thomas in French in “I've Loved You So Long”) grew up. His mother is in a nursing home, and I don’t know where his father, Édouard (Michel Duchaussoy is living.
Julia discovers that the Tezacs moved into the top-floor apartment in the Marais in August 1942. This is a red flag, raising the question of why was it available and the intuition that it had been occupied by Jews who were taken away. With the structure of the flashbacks, the audience knows what Julia only suspects (but confirms).
Julia obsessively pursues the story of the Sarah Starzynski. Again, the audience learns more than she does, seeing the events. I don’t want to run afoul of plot-spoiling, but you can be sure that the story of what happened to the previous occupants of the apartment is harrowing and guilt-ridden. As in Claude Miller's 2007 "Un secret" (A Secret), there is a disastrous choice, albeit a less patently stupid one. (But "Un secret" is one of the stimuli of déjà vu for another French Shoah film, sharing the researching into past horror structure. Joseph Losey’s 1976 “Monsieur Klein” is the first screen representation of the Vel' d'Hiv roundup I saw, and it is a film that probes French opportunistic collusion even more than “Sarah’s Key” does.)
The story that Julia is researching is more gripping than her story, but as she follows the Starzynski story to the countryside, Brooklyn, and Florence, her marriage erodes. It is not the possible past collusion of her in-laws with the French extirpation of Jews, but her husband’s strong wish not to start child-raising over that is crucial. Quite surprisingly, not only given her age (Thomas was born in 1960) but medical opinion that she could not become pregnant again, she is pregnant (which her mother-in-law intuits first). The “medical miracle” morphs into a choice between husband and potential child for Julia. This melodrama is less gripping than the story she is researching (I think for her as well as for the viewer), though Thomas is convincing, not least because her inattentive and selfish husband is completely unsympathetic a character (his parents are far more sympathetic ones, and Julia visits her mother-in-law more than Bertrand does). The degree of Julia’s obsession with finding out what happened seems excessive, even to someone like me who is not committed to the wisdom of letting sleeping dogs lie.
Perhaps because the female characters are the ones exercising agency at most junctures, the actresses, especially Mélusine Mayancem but also Mélusine Mayance , Gisèle Casadesus , and Natasha Mashkevich turn in more memorable performances than actors Frédéric Pierrot and Aiden Quinn, though the crusty oldsters — Niels Arestrup and Michel Duchaussoy — far better than those middle-aged ones. The cinematography of Pascal Ridao (Pretty Things) is outstanding, Max Richter’s music serviceable.
The DVD includes an hour-long documentary that includes Tatiana de Rosnay recalling the many rejections of her book, She was also an extra in a restaurant scene. I didn’t think the making-of featurette provided any compelling insights.
©2011, Stephen O. Murray
Julia definitely becomes obsessed with playing detective about what happened two-thirds of a century earlier, so this seems to me to fit in Talyseon's mystery writeoff.
Some movies centering on the occupation of France that I prefer:
Le chagrin et la pitié (The Sorrow and the Pity, 1969)
L'armée des ombre (Army of Shadows, 1969)
Lacombe, Lucien (1974)
Le corbeau (The Raven, 1943)
M. Klein (1976)
Bon voyage (2003)
Au revoir les enfants (1987)
Indigènes (Days of Glory, 2006)
The Last Metro (1980)
This Land Is Mine (1943)
Le Silence de la Mer (The Silence of the Sea, 1949)
Le train (1973)
La Vie de Chateau (1966)
Charlotte Gray (2001)
and particularly relevant in recalling their mother's reckless endangerment of them are two books by daughters of Irène Némirovsky (Suite Française), The Mirador and Shadows of a Childhood.
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