Sarah’s Key (Elle s’appelait Sarah)

Gendarmes pound on the door of a French apartment in WWII to collect the Jews who live there, and a little girl thinks to save her brother’s life by locking him in a closet. The rest of the family is taken away and the little girl desperately tries to get back, or to send someone, to fetch him.

So begins the French film, Sarah’s Key, which is this story and also the story of a journalist (Kristin Scott-Thomas) who moves into that apartment with her family 60 years later, who happens to be researching the story for a magazine article.

The coincidence bugged me a bit, but then it occurred to me that with tens of thousands of Jews having been rounded up in France, it’s not as huge a stretch as it first seems that there’d be a connection, even an intimate one.

Mélusine Mayance plays the eponymous Sarah, and her struggle to free her brother from the closet is suspenseful, moving, riveting and heart-breaking as Sarah’s story crosses those of other children.

Julia Jarmond’s story is necessarily far more low-key. She’s obsessed by the story, moving into her husband’s family apartment in Paris, and newly (surprisingly) pregnant with a child her husband doesn’t want.

The Boy and I deconstructed it immediately: The climax is a little past the middle of the film. We find out what happens to Sarah as a child, and follow Julia as she tries to find out her fate as an adult. This doesn’t have the drive of the first part of the film, and—well, it’s all sort of denouement.

As I’ve noted, when the French aren’t beating up America, they’re beating up themselves, and there’s a little of that here, though not as much as you might think. (Not like, say, the moving Indigenes.) But there’s an undeniable triviality of modern life compared to World War II and the Holocaust. The Boy said at the end he was reminded of that scene in Crazy, Stupid Love (the giddy “It’s just a divorce!” celebration).

And yet. For both of us, the movie seemed to get better and better in the ensuing hours. It’s a tricky (some would say dangerous) juxtaposition, and the reviews for this movie indicate that the critics were less likely to accept it than the general audience. Maybe this is because Julia is an American and she (rightly) has a certain moral concern over the possibility her French in-laws may have acquired property from Jewish victims of the Holocaust, and American moral superiority isn’t big among our elite these days.

But maybe it worked for us because we’re humbled by the experience. The events of our lives are happily trivial compared to those of who came before us, thanks to their efforts. And maybe we could relate to Julia and her peers trying to find some meaning at the peril of re-prioritizing things in favor of what’s important rather than what’s convenient.

Excellently acted throughout, of course. Beautifully rendered in two different styles (for the flashback and the modern times). Effective, understated music. If I am jaded about Holocaust movies occasionally, this one had a different, challenging aspect to it that made it worthy of viewing.

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