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Friday, November 25, 2011

SARAH'S KEY -- DVD review by porfle

Alternately harrowing and bland, SARAH'S KEY (2010) is two different movies shuffled together, and only one of them is really worth our time.

A magazine writer in Paris, American-born Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas) is assigned to do an article about the little-known rounding up of over 130,000 French Jews in 1942 at the behest of the Nazis--by the French bureaucracy itself--after which they were sent to the death camp at Auschwitz. Julia is shocked to find that her husband Bertrand's family, the Tezacs, availed themselves of an apartment forcibly vacated by the Starzynski family, whose youngest son Michel was hidden in a locked closet to avoid capture.

In addition to gathering data for her magazine piece, Julia becomes obsessed with two things--locating the Starzynski's daughter Sarah, whom records show was never sent to Auschwitz, and confronting the Tezacs with their guilt.  Needless to say, this doesn't do wonders for her marriage to Bertrand, which is already on thin ice over her unexpected pregnancy (she wants the baby, he doesn't).  Julia singlemindedly pursues the mystery of Sarah until she discovers what became of her, to the detriment of he own family.

When SARAH'S KEY focuses on ten-year-old Sarah's sudden plunge into a waking nightmare and her struggle to escape, it's a heartrending drama skillfully handled by director Gilles Paquet-Brenner and brought to life by an outstanding cast.  The Starzynskis are forced to spend several days in a sweltering indoor racing arena with thousands of other Jews, with little food or water and no toilet facilities ("Imagine the Superdome in New Orleans, only a hundred times worse," Julia's editor explains), before being split up and placed in a detainment camp to await final transport to Auschwitz.  The terror of having their lives turned upside-down is vividly shown through Sarah's uncomprehending eyes, while she desperately clings to the key that will free Michel from his closet prison. 

Sarah's escape from the detainment camp with friend Rachel (Sarah Ber) leads to more suspense and uncertainty when the girls are taken in by an older couple who try to help Sarah get back to Paris somehow, under constant threat from Nazi soldiers and French whistleblowers.  The shattering conclusion to this segment of the story is powerfully handled, not least by amazing young actress Mélusine Mayance who is so good as to be absolutely riveting.  Her surprisingly mature performance would be considered impressive for an adult actress but for a child her age it's almost unworldly, raising the entire film to a level of realism and emotional resonance that it otherwise would not have reached.

Unfortunately, as Sarah's story begins to fade into the background, Julia's comes to the fore and pales in comparison.  Her handling of the Sarah business in regard to husband Bertrand and his family--in effect washing her hands of them with a curdled air of moral superiority--is off-puttingly unsympathetic, and we wonder exactly what feeling there ever was in Julia and Bertrand's sketchily-drawn marriage to begin with.  She seems confident that, unlike the Tezacs, she would've done "the right thing" back in 1942, yet she chides a young coworker at her magazine for implying precisely the same thing.  It's puzzling that the filmmakers would allow her character, with whom we're meant to identify, to appear so self-righteous.

As Sarah's character grows older, the more enigmatic and less interesting she becomes.  Her story is resolved (more or less) in an unsatisfying way that lacks any kind of closure or meaning and doesn't seem true to the character as we've gotten to know her.  Meanwhile, Julia's search for her becomes a sort of shaggy dog story which eventually reaches a similarly inconclusive end, fizzling out along with the film itself.  I had to go back and watch it again to see if I'd missed anything that would've made it more effective, but even a late appearance by Aidan Quinn as Sarah's son lacks the relevance I was looking for. 

The DVD from Anchor Bay and the Weinsteins is in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen with Dolby 5.1 sound and subtitles in English and Spanish.  The sole extra is an in-depth hour-long documentary, "The Making of 'Sarah's Key'." 

SARAH'S KEY might've been a better movie if the Julie character had been eliminated altogether--Sarah's story is more than strong enough to have carried the entire film, especially since the two storylines never really relate to one another in any meaningful way.  All the present-day stuff does is to remind us that something important happened in 1942 which shouldn't be forgotten.  The flashback segments of the film are indeed memorable, and well worth experiencing, but rest of it is quite forgettable.

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