MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs. Pick of the Week: New. Sarah’s Key

Sarah’s Key (Elle s’appelait Sarah) (Three Stars)
France: Gilles Paquet-Brenner, 2010 (Weinstein Company/Anchor Bay)
Sarah‘s Key (Elle s’appelait Sarah) is a movie about public and private tragedies, based on the novel by Tatiana de Rosnay and filmed with much fidelity and feeling by director-screenwriter Gilles Paquet-Brenner. It’s a good movie, with one great long sequence set in 1942 France, during the infamous Vel d‘Hive Roundup of the Jews — a sequence of horror, death and all-consuming fear that has an obsessive power, that’s capable of gripping and riveting us just as the film’s journalist-protagonist (Kristin Scott Thomas) is obsessed by the story of Sarah and her key.
Here is the story.
It is 1942, and we are in the Marais, a Jewish section of Paris in World War II, during part of the Vel d’Hiv Roundup. French police, to their  eternal shame, are arresting Jews, to be sent off to local prison camps and later to the Nazi way-stations of death. We see and hear it all — the screams, struggles, the brutality and lies from the police — through the eyes of one family of Polish refugees, the Starczynskis (Natasha Mashkevich and Arben Bajraktaraj) and their children, Michel, the youngest (Paul Mercier) and blonde little Sarah (Melusine Mayance). In the midst of the arrests and turbulence her mother tells Sarah to lock up her little brother Michel (Paul Mercier) in a hiding place, a closet, after telling him to wait there, quietly, until they can return for him.
Of course they don’t return in time: they are on their way to Auschwitz. But Sarah escapes from the French prison camp where she is first taken, and goes on the run with another little girl, who sickens and dies of diphtheria. She is granted refuge by an old French farming couple, the Dufaires (Niels Arestrup and Dominique Frot) and she is sent by them back to Paris. Bent on finding and saving her brother, Sarah returns, her parents never. She finds the Marais again, the street, the building, the apartment, the closet. But it is too late, of course, for Michel.
We hear later what happened to him: how he screamed, how he pounded, how the screams stopped, how a terrible stench rose in the closet — an odor that the new occupants thought was some dead animal trapped in the walls. Sarah, distraught, returns to her elderly saviors, the Dufaires. She grows up; she leaves home. She sends her kindly rescuers only one missive: a wedding announcement, for Sarah and an American husband. She never writes again. She disappears. She has kept the key.


Decades later, the American-French journalist Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas), who is married to a successful Frenchman named Bertrand Tezac (Frederic Pierrot), wangles an assignment from her editor to write a cover story on the Vel d’Hiv Roundup. Although she doesn’t at first know it, her in-laws, the Tezacs, are the family that moved into the apartment after the Starczynskis and little Sarah were forcibly vacated. Julia, though beset by family problems (her discovery of her own late pregnancy and the disinclination of Bertrand to take on late fatherhood) digs further.


She finds Sarah’s American relatives, finds out what happened to her, eventually finds Sarah’s son (Aidan Quinn). And she finds the key.


This is partly sheer melodrama of course, partly a weepie. But it’s an interesting story and it grips you and moves you, especially at the beginning, during the roundup. Innumerable movie critics have complained that Julia’s personal problems are so heavily outweighed, in emotion and significance, by the Holocaust sections that it creates an imbalance. Of course it does. How could anyone’s marital problems, or everyday problems, or personal problems of any kind, possibly not be obliterated by spectacle of mass arrests and the Holocaust? But that doesn’t mean that the movie trivializes the history it recreates, either intentionally or not.

In Alain Resnais’ and Marguerite Duras’ Hiroshima Mon Amour, a much better movie than Sarah’s Key, the lovemaking and relationship of a French movie actress (Emmanuelle Riva) and her Japanese architect lover (Eiji Okada) are juxtaposed with images of the bombing and its aftermath at Hiroshima, and dialogues between the two about the mass deaths there — and later, there’s a long sequence of the journalist’s tragic WW2-era romance with a German soldier. Resnais doesn’t show us as much of Hiroshima in WW2 as Paquet-Brenner (working with de Rosnay’s text with his co-screenwriter Serge Joncour) shows us of the recreated Vel d’Hiv and its horrific aftermath. But how could that troubled romance in Hiroshima Mon Amour as well not seem small compared with the horrors of an atomic bomb wiping out a city?

What’s important in Sarah’s Key about the sections with Julia is not that her own family problems are in any way comparable to Sarah‘s, but that there are great changes wrought in Julia by the past history she unravels, a history little known to many of us, and even to Julia’s young newsmagazine co-workers. I’d never heard of Vel d’Hiv before and I’ll bet most of the American audience (and a lot of movie critics) hadn’t either — though the French audience probably knew more, even if  it wasn’t re-imagined with this intensity.

 The main point of Sarah’s Key is that evil is a part of history, it happens, and it destroys lives and goes on affecting them in many ways until we come to terms with it — that we shouldn’t  trivialize or forget it.  Julia can be somewhat self-righteous and unlikable. (I confess I disliked her a bit up until the end, when she actually criticizes some of her earlier behavior.) But she does empathize with Sarah and she has a sense of justice and she’s the one who finds and tells Sarah’s story, and, in a way, she reclaims her to life.

The movie tells a good story, sometimes implausible, but with that crystalline, impeccably visualized look and style that was typical of, say, Fred Zinnemann’s better movies — including his own World War 2 anti-Nazi remembrance story Julia. Zinnemann, though sometimes underrated by serious critics (maybe he won too many Oscars for their tastes), was a good director, an intelligent one, and a very good storyteller with good taste in material and subjects. (I love Hawks‘ Rio Bravo, which was made partly in response to Zinnemann‘s High Noon, but I love High Noon too.) And Paquet-Brenner is a good director as well.

By the way, the actors speak different languages in Sarah‘s Key, primarily French and English, but always believably. That’s always true of he bilingual Ms. Thomas of course, but Paquet-Brenner seems as comfortable working in two linguistic worlds as she is. We’ll hear more of him, and in our language. I hope we hear much more from Thomas, in English as well as French: the old world she seems to have so thoroughly conquered.

If there’s an imbalance in Sarah’s Key, it’s because our expectations may be raised so high by the sheer power of the Vel d’Hiv scenes. The image of this beautiful little girl, lost in the horrors of the Holocaust, trying so hard to save her little brother, haunts you. The movie isn’t great, but de Rosnay’s and Mayance’s Sarah is.

That’s the way it is with some films. Sometimes the parts or one part outweighs the whole. But if something is beautiful, or powerful, or memorable in a movie, as Sarah’s desperate quest is here, and it reaches us, as Sarah does here, it tends to makes the experience worth it. Here, it is worth it. That‘s the key. (Elle s’appelait Sarah.)

Extras: Documentary The Making of Sarah‘s Key.

Be Sociable, Share!

Comments are closed.


awesome stuff. OK I would like to contribute as well by sharing this awesome link, that personally helped me get some amazing and easy to modify. check it out at All custom premade files, many of them totally free to get. Also, check out Dow on: Wilmington on DVDs: How to Train Your Dragon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Darjeeling Limited, The Films of Nikita Mikhalkov, The Hangover, The Human Centipede and more ...

cool post. OK I would like to contribute too by sharing this awesome link, that personally helped me get some amazing and easy to customize. check it out at All custom templates, many of them dirt cheap or free to get. Also, check out Downlo on: Wilmington on Movies: I'm Still Here, Soul Kitchen and Bran Nue Dae

awesome post. Now I would like to contribute too by sharing this awesome link, that personally helped me get some beautiful and easy to modify. take a look at All custom premade files, many of them free to get. Also, check out DownloadSoho.c on: MW on Movies: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, Paranormal Activity 2, and CIFF Wrap-Up

Carrie Mulligan on: Wilmington on DVDs: The Great Gatsby

isa50 on: Wilmington on DVDs: Gladiator; Hell's Half Acre; The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

Rory on: Wilmington on Movies: Snow White and the Huntsman

Andrew Coyle on: Wilmington On Movies: Paterson

tamzap on: Wilmington on DVDs: The Magnificent Seven, Date Night, Little Women, Chicago and more …

rdecker5 on: Wilmington on DVDs: Ivan's Childhood

Ray Pride on: Wilmington on Movies: The Purge: Election Year

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon