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.