It’s very easy to live in the black or the white, but sometimes it’s necessary to examine that grey area in between. Sarah’s Key beautifully drowns itself in this grey, cutting right by the ‘us and them’ arguments, and highlighting France’s willing collaboration with the Nazis, and their involvement in the corralling of 76,000 Jews. Specifically, the film is concerned with the Vél’ d’hiv’ round-up of 13,000 Jews from Paris on the 16th and 17th of July 1942: the largest mass arrest of Jews ever on French soil. The grouping included a large proportion of women and children – who had not yet learned the need to hide – and brought them for interment in brutal conditions at the Paris Vélodrome, before mass transport to camps.
Our story starts, then, in 1942, with a young girl Sarah, (the tragic and beautiful Mélusine Mayance), and her brother Michél, playing together in their apartment before disturbed by harsh knocking. Sarah, seeing that these uniformed men don’t bode well for her mother and them, runs to the bedroom and locks her brother in a secret closet, promising to return later to release him. The harsh reaction of neighbours as they pass make Sarah realise that the key to her brother’s release must remain with her. Fast forward to present day Paris, and American journalist Julia (Kristin Scott Thomas) is walking through the same apartment with her French husband and their 12 year old daughter, considering renovating this, his family home. Julia, charged with writing an article on the Vél’ d’hiv’, begins researching the facts of the round-up – inadvertently discovering that her husband’s family home, acquired in August 1942, tells a story of its own. To escape statistics, a researcher tells Julia, you need to put a face and a reality to each individual destiny – Sarah’s story, then, turns out to be a destiny that will not only open up the reality of the Vél’ d’hiv’, but Julia’s own reality.
We discover more about Sarah just as Julia does, and the film alternates between modern-day Paris and the past, to allow both their stories to be revealed slowly and carefully. By times tense and anxious, the film doesn’t shy away from the brutality of the war, and the scenes at the Vélodrome in particular resonate strongly in our post-Hurricane Katrina modern world. We’re inside with Sarah and her family, crammed into the transport trucks, and packed onto straw beds – and we feel her fear as she strives to get back to her little brother before it’s too late. Julia’s relationship with her husband begins to break down as she discovers more about Sarah, further exasperated by a pregnancy that her husband wants aborted.
The flashbacks never feel lazy, but offer continuing linear support for Julia’s tale – operating as narrative exposition. The stories work towards a conclusion that draws both protagonists together, despite the 50-year gap in their tales, and the ending, while it couldn’t be called happy, still offers resolution. Julia tells us that when a story is told, it’s not forgotten, but becomes something else – by fictionalising a single face amongst the thousands of faceless, Sarah’s Key creates a movie about a much-covered subject, and manages to make it feel new again. Perhaps that ‘something else’, in this case, turns out to be simply a beautifully crafted movie, and a well told story.
Sarah’s Key is released on DVD on 28th November, 2011.
- Format: PAL
- Region: Region 2
- Number of discs: 1
- Classification: 12
- Studio: Studiocanal
- DVD Release Date: 28 Nov 2011