Friday, September 16, 2011

The past didn't go anywhere now, did it?

Bryan is a former colleague, dear friend, and beloved acting teacher. He's a treasured mentor too, but only cause he's old (things tend to go to his head, but that's only cause he's old too). Everyone I meet who knows him, agrees that he's the most wonderful, vital, delightful human. It gets repetitive and annoying. If you know the man and don't care much for him, please drop me a line. In the mean time, check out these reviews of Sarah's Key.

Bryan's Review of Sarah's Key

I will never forget the incident a friend of mine recounted when I asked her if in her role as therapist she had ever listened to the story of a patient that she found so horrific that it silenced her. Describing one such exchange, she said that after the patient had finished speaking the only response she could manage was to draw the attention of the two them, one the story-teller and one the witness, to a robin sitting on the branch of a tree outside the window of her office. In this way they both found a necessary peaceful oasis before re-entering the pain.

I recalled the need for this oasis after I saw French director Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s latest film Sarah’s Key, whose opening line extols the importance of telling stories so they are not forgotten, even if these stories reveal secrets and histories that threaten to shatter us to the core. “Truth has a price” one of the characters reminds us. We, the audience, are silent witnesses to the brutal reality of the July 1942 Vel’d’Hiv roundup of 13, 152 predominantly non-French Jewish émigrés and refugees and their French children and grandchildren in German-occupied Paris, an event only publicly acknowledged by Jacques Chirac in 1995. Told from the point of view of Sarah (Melusine Mayance), an 11 year-old Jewish child caught in the roundup, and Julia (Kristin Scott-Thomas), an American journalist working for an American publication in Paris whose assignment is to write a piece on the 60th anniversary of the event, the past and the present are interwoven in parallel stories. The director, who is also one of the screen writers, was recently quoted as stating that for him the overriding question in his film was “How can we make history feel closer to us?”

One of the ways in which Paquet-Brenner does this is to use close-ups of Jewish characters as they are brutalized by the French police and Secret Service on their journey to Auschwitz. Witness the terrified and hunted look on the face of Sarah’s mother when in 1942 the police break into her family’s apartment to transport them to the Velodrome d’Hiver. Witness the supernaturally composed expression on the child Sarah’s face as she hides her younger brother Michel in a closet so he will not be found by the police, making him promise not to move. From that fateful moment onwards the key to the closet is her only constant companion in a transient world of nightmares. Witness the faces of mothers contorted by screams as their children are forcibly separated from them in the Beaune-la-Rolande transit deportation camp just before the adults are sent to Auschwitz. Witness close-up the trauma of those who find the decomposing body of young Michel when weeks later the closet is finally opened by an inconsolable Sarah. The depiction of pain, reinforced by the dark color palette of the film, is unrelenting, as are the emotional demands of the film. This is both the film’s strength and ultimately its weakness.

The strength lies in the ability of some of the key actors to express the dignity that comes through the ability to endure horror while trying to protect the soul. Eleven year-old Melusine Mayance’s performance as Sarah is entirely convincing and remarkably accomplished. We see her transformation from a carefree child giggling with her brother under the bedcovers in the only innocent scene at the beginning of the film, to a body crumpled on the ground after she is separated from her mother, and then to a fiercely purposeful older sister, unafraid, an angel on a mission of mercy. All of this is done without affectation, and thus we come to understand something about the tenacity of children to maintain their innocence. The performance of Niels Arestrup as Jules Dufaure, who shelters Sarah with a kindness borne of dangerous compassion, has a depth to it, and a roundness that securely guides us through the emotional terrain of the film.

It is Kristin Scott-Thomas’ performance as Julia, the conscience of the audience, which exemplifies the weakness of Sarah’s Key and ultimately its failure to provide the transformative catharsis that we yearn for in this film. Julia is the voice of present-day discovery. When she uncovers the shameful past of July 1942 and the terrifying proximity of Sarah’s story to her own life, she unearths what she truly values, but it is not without cost. As one character says to her: “When you look into this you won’t come out unscathed.” Kristin Scott-Thomas often displays the ability of so many good English actors to communicate the internal conflict that accompanies the demands of self- sacrifice in an intelligent way, without sentimentalizing it. However, about half-way through watching her in this film, I was aware of how cold, tense, and static her performance became, how fixed her expression of pain, how difficult it was for her to sustain the insistence of the director on the close-up scrutiny of the face. The overall effect of this directorial approach with its unrelenting rhythm of anguish, and of the shortcomings of the lead actor to provide nuance in the face of it, was to leave us numbed, and frankly, feeling somewhat manipulated.

This was not helped by the script of Sarah’s Key, which is based on the internationally best-selling novel of the same name by acclaimed writer Tatiana de Rosnay. Many threads were interwoven in the film, but without the time for the scriptwriter to develop these threads in the way of the novelist, and without the space for the audience to reflect on the overall tapestry that is afforded when one reads a novel at one’s leisure, without these the script seemed too contrived. This was especially evident at the end. Here the story and all of its unimaginable horror is too-quickly resolved in a sentimental and predictable way that is far too facile to serve as the catharsis that the director knows he must provide. Rather than bringing us closer to history, in this film we are left alienated by it.

Watching the news the evening after I had seen Sarah’s Key, with the usual offering of present-day war, I wondered how these horrors would be told to future generations, what secrets would never be told, what truths would be sought after, and what courage it takes to remember. In this way Sarah’s Key is undoubtedly brave, despite its weakness as a film. Finally, that is what I took from watching this film – its courage to try and re-imagine the unimaginable.

Caitlin's Review of Sarah's Key

A Novel Dilemma by Caitlin Murphy

I stopped reading novels.  Quite a while ago actually.  Though I’ve still not articulated to myself exactly why.  The best explanation I’ve come up with so far is that they’re just too novely.  Not much of a defense, I guess.  And yet.  When I read blurbs on books that supposedly ‘span generations,’ ‘bridge cultural divides’ and ‘expose long-buried truths,’ or I watch a movie like Sarah’s Key, I’m reminded of this word novely, and re-inspired to give it substance.

Directed and co-written by Gilles Pacquet-Brenner, and based on the French novel, Elle s’appelait Sarah, by Tatiana de Rosnay, Sarah’s Key focuses on a shameful chapter in France’s war history, known as the Vel d’Hiv Roundup.  In 1942, French police forced thousands of Jews from their homes, crowded them into a local stadium with deplorable conditions, and eventually transported them to their deaths at Auschwitz.  When the Starzinsky family is arrested, daughter Sarah (Melusine Mayance) hides her brother from the police by locking him in the closet, making him promise to wait for her return.  Discovering Sarah’s story from the perspective of the present day is Julia (Kristin Scott Thomas), a journalist writing an anniversary piece on Vel d’Hiv; she is also, as she realizes, about to move into the Starzinksy’s former apartment, which was perhaps illicitly acquired by her in-laws.  The narrative flips back and forth between Julia’s investigation and soul searching, and Sarah’s eventual escape and devastating post-war life. 

Much of the exposition in the film – and of course much was needed –  was handled quite awkwardly.  Often with earnest questions inserted into the mouths of twenty-somethings, followed by shocked replies from their elders:  “you mean you don’t know about…?  Well, I’m going to tell you now then.”  Clumsy exposition sadly doesn’t help the cause – when history feels like a history lesson, especially in film, we tune out.  It’s not about the message, it’s about the medium.  Walter Murch, editor of The English Patient, among many other films, has said that in adapting a novel to the screen, “The most frequent problem is abundance.”  Books simply cover much more material than film can (effectively) cover.  A novel that focuses on the historical record as well then would seem doubly hampered.  Over-abundance often results in having to be obvious (the shoe-horning described above), and having to be general (the enemy of good art). 

For me, the frustration with stories like Sarah’s Key is that they feel telegraphed somehow; eventual epiphanies seem decided by the first frame, and the potential for discovery and surprise (so crucial to an audience’s journey) feels largely absent. Even the film’s poster – Kristin Scott Thomas standing before a clouded sky, clutching an old photograph, looking wistfully off into the distance – suggests a knowingness, a story that already knows itself too well before it’s even begun, before its audience has found their seats.

Even the original French title of de Rosnay’s novel, which translates to Her Name Was Sarah, sounds so clearly decided about its position in relationship to its subject matter.  A door seems shut somehow; the body feels cold.  I’m starting to wonder too about the degree to which familiar, horribly charged material (like the Holocaust) doesn’t painfully inhibit people, even creative people.  Our muscle of reverence spasms; we are understandably overwhelmed by our inability to fully conceive of or appreciate the unique traumas of others.  And in response, we stiffen.  Often the result of this inhibition is that we succumb to the general, as mentioned above.  Perhaps because being specific, which gives a story its texture and impact, feels crass, presumptuous somehow.  I’m not sure.  I have experienced this very stiffening even trying to write this review though, so the phenomenon feels real and relevant.  

British by origin, Kristin Scott Thomas’ command of language (speaking French much of the film) and accent (playing an American) are impressive.  In this very literary feeling film though, Scott Thomas (also of The English Patient, another novel/film) starts feeling a bit too literary herself:  like the idea of a character, more so than a hot-blooded human.  After a while too, Julia’s mission feels too singular and her character too one-note, but I’m not sure Thomas’ performance could have countered this.  The acting overall is wildly divergent.  Some performances are compelling and heart-breaking (an older couple who eventually adopts Sarah are achingly lovely) and others, forced and near amateur (the actor playing Julia’s boss seemed never to have read a magazine let alone run one) and  Aidan Quinn, looking a little puffy these days, delivers a few rather unforgiveable moments of melodrama.

To be honest, I didn’t know about the Vel d’Hiv Roundup, or don’t remember knowing about it, and the political role of story-telling to remind us of these chapters of history is obviously one to be commended and continued.  We should return repeatedly and marvel at the cruelty that we’re capable of:  a scene in which mothers are separated from their children was especially horrific and wrenching.  Sustaining such a journey though, and all the unrelenting heaviness it involves, is once again, likely better achieved in a book (where the reader can pause, breathe, reflect) than a film adaptation in which a lot of the story-telling ends up being about keeping heads bowed and barrelling through.

In the film’s final scene, Julia admits doubts about her own motivations; after the unravelling of Sarah’s story was complete, she explains, she was forced to reflect on what had really driven her so deeply into the past, into the life of a girl she never knew.  And I wished that this briefly aired concern had been a more pressing and central one for the film overall:  to investigate the very investigative urge that possessed Julia and lead her, ultimately, to name her own daughter, (the one she didn’t think she could have, and her husband rejected her for wanting), Sarah.  The guilt that comes with knowledge, the paralysis we feel in face of our unchangeable histories – what do we do with these feelings?  What ought we do with them?  In relationship to the past, we stand, always, ultimately helpless.  We can only console ourselves that in shading the present with some of the past’s colours, we mute some of its horrors.  But this sort of reclaiming of other people’s stories also starts looking pretty quickly like appropriation.  Ironically it’s a very thin line between reverence and exploitation.   

And so I return to this idea of novely, which certainly doesn’t apply to all novels or justify my giving up on them.  But I think, ultimately, the word has something to do with stories not feeling novel at all.  Feeling too tidy and decided, too polished and self-aware, more refined, than raw, more feeling than felt, chaos too contained.