Friday, September 16, 2011

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment