Sarah’s Key (Elle s’appelait Sarah)

Sarah's Key

US Release: 2011
Director: Gilles Paquet-Brenner

In the earliest moments of Sarah’s Key, lead actress Kristin Scott Thomas declares that “when a story is told, it is not forgotten.” This statement rings as a challenge both to the film’s viewers and the film itself, but it’s a challenge the film doesn’t quite overcome.

The widely unknown deportation of 13,000 French Jews to concentration camps in 1942 catalyzes the dual narrative film that spans 60 years. The young Sarah Starzynski and her parents are among the Jews forced from their homes and each other by their own government. In a desperate attempt to save her younger brother from a similar fate, Sarah locks him in a closet, taking the key with her and making him swear to stay hidden.

The film cuts back and forth from 1942 to present-day France, where expatriate American journalist Julia Jarmond (Scott Thomas, in a performance as bland and thin as a communion wafer) struggles to pick up the threads of Sarah’s journey and weave them together after learning her husband’s family owns the apartment the Starzynskis lived in before being shipped away.

She relentlessly hunts for clues of Sarah’s fate after finding her name absent from the list of French Jews sent to Auschwitz. Julia’s search takes her across oceans and continents, and she learns there is a cost to the horrible truths she ultimately discovers.

The beautiful yet scathing visual storytelling surrounding Sarah’s adolescence vanishes whenever the film reverts to the present—a tragedy in itself. Rather than give a compelling story its due attention, Paquet-Brenner lets Scott Thomas bring any potential the film had to a trite and clichéd halt. Matters of Julia’s unexpected pregnancy and personal life overshadow the harrowing story of the past.

It’s safe to hypothesize that the film’s bifocal emphasis cripples whatever power it might have otherwise held over viewers if more time was allotted to exploring Sarah’s character as she matured. Paquet-Brenner’s unforgiving portrayal of the terror and raw human desperation of the Holocaust is beautiful in its horror. Yet as soon as Sarah ages past childhood, her role in the story essentially vanishes, leaving any development or analysis of her troubled psyche to viewers’ imagination. Instead of a masterpiece, viewers are dealt a cheap shot at a happy-go-lucky story using the worst tragedy of the 20th century as fodder for attention.

This is no Schindler’s List or La Vita è Bella. This is the Holocaust for soccer moms.

By Samantha Berkhead

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