Sarah's Key (The Weinstein Company, PG-13)

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I find it distasteful to exploit references to the Holocaust in an attempt to class up what is really the cinematic equivalent of an airplane novel but maybe I'm just funny that way.

 

Oscar bait doesn't come much glossier than Sarah's Key, a combination Holocaust and woman's empowerment tale with first-rate production values and a star-studded cast including Kristin Scott Thomas, Aidan Quinn and the very talented child actor Mélusine Mayance. It has a potentially interesting story to tell but feels more like an exploitation flick, undermining its own effectiveness by anviliciously underlining the pathos of every scene with intrusive music and camerawork and feeding the audience information in thuddingly expository dialogue.

Two stories run in parallel in director Gilles Paquet-Brenner's film, adapted by Pacquet-Brenner and Serge Joncour from a best-selling novel by Tatiana De Rosnay. The first begins in 1942, when members of a Parisian Jewish family are among the over 13,000 people rounded up by the French police and held in unspeakable conditions in a French sports stadium before being sent to internment and extermination camps. This incident is known in France as the Rafle du Vel' d'Hiv (the Vel' d'Hiv roundup; Vel' d'Hiv is an abbreviation for Vélodrome d'Hiver or winter velodrome) and if you never heard of it before, don't worry, the cast will give you a quick overview in some of that transparently expository dialogue I mentioned above.

Young Sarah (Mayance) has the bright idea of hiding her little brother in a closet and locking him in, promising to return as she believes the family will be gone for only a few hours. She does manage to return, showing great fortitude and enlisting help from unlikely sources as she escapes from the prison camp and finds her way back to Paris, but weeks have passed and you can imagine what she finds when she finally unlocks the closet.

In the present time, Kristin Scott Thomas is busy being Julia Jarmond, a journalist with one of those dream jobs which allow you to spend an unlimited time and money researching a single magazine story. Julia's story turns out to be about, you guessed it, the Vel d'Hiv incident. As if that's not enough of a connection, she and her husband Bertrand (Frédéric Pierrot) are moving into a flat inherited from his parents who took possession of it in 1942 after Sarah and her family were unceremoniously removed from it. Julia becomes obsessed with tracking down Sarah and the film progresses through these stories in parallel, often cutting abruptly between them in a way which may well have worked in the novel but on the screen robs both stories of coherence.

Julia and Bertrand are not getting along too well, independent of her insistence in rattling the skeletons in his family's closet, and the juxtaposition of the two stories does not play to her advantage. Face it, anything short of the Nanjing Massacre is going to look like small potatoes next to the Holocaust and thus the characters in the modern story seem petty and whiny except for a few noble elders including a bedridden gentlemen who pulls a revival worthy of a flopping soccer player in order to provide some pieces of the puzzle Julia is trying to assemble. It doesn't help that the behavior of the characters in the modern story, including a brief appearance by Aidan Quinn near the end, do not match up with any known human psychology and seem more like chess pieces moved about the board at the director's convenience rather than roles based on observation of how people behave in the real world.

For all that Sarah's Key isn't a terrible movie so much as it's a disappointing one. Director Paquet-Brenner's determination to leave no heartstrings unplucked soon starts to feel like piling on, but if you're the kind of person who goes to movies to cry, or if you like dwelling on historical misbehaviors of others because it makes you feel superior, this may be just the film for you. I find it distasteful to exploit references to the Holocaust in an attempt to class up what is really the cinematic equivalent of an airplane novel but maybe I'm just funny that way. In the modern story you also get a glamorous travelogue, visiting Paris, Florence, and New York in the company of beautiful people who eat in beautiful restaurants and live in beautiful homes. You can also enjoy the excellence of the technical elements which will probably get a few nominations come Oscar time, including cinematography (Pascal Ridao), costumes (Nathalie Chesnais) and art direction (Françoise Dupertuis). | Sarah Boslaugh

 

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