Here's an unconventional French Holocaust drama: a film that plays as a guilty remembrance of a dark corner of French history tucked into a ticking-clock thriller.
Sarah's Key stars British actress Kristin Scott Thomas as Julia, a modern-day American journalist investigating the mass deportation of Jews from the Marais neighborhood of Paris in 1942. Some 13,000 men, women and children were rounded up over two days and stuffed into the Vélodrome d'Hiver, an indoor bicycle racetrack, kept there under cruel and inhumane conditions, and then shipped to concentration camps. And the entire shameful event was orchestrated and carried out by the French themselves.
Julia, who has married a Frenchman and has a teenage daughter, is consumed with this story, tracking down survivors. But with every new clue, she seems to connect this tragedy to herself, her husband's family and their Marais apartment.
Director Gilles Paquet-Brenner, working from Tatiana de Rosnay's 2007 novel, balances Julia's morbid curiosity with the terror of those events as they happened in the past. And as Sarah's Key progresses, we, like Julia, feel the urgency of back then forcing its way into the present. What happened to this girl named Sarah and her little brother, and will Julia or we ever discover the truth?
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Little Sarah (Mélusine Mayance) was 10 when the police came to grab her family. She pushed her baby brother Michel into a hidden closet and told him to wait for her, then she locked the door with a key as she and her family were taken off. Her parents fear for their own lives. "Think only of yourself, only yourself."
They assume that a kindly neighbor will rescue the boy. But Sarah has seen the anti-Semitism of their neighbors. She becomes consumed with escaping from the velodrome, panicked over how long her brother can survive without her.
The movie is by turns breathless and grimly reflective. Sarah tries to give others escaping from the velodrome the key to the cupboard where her brother hides, and failing that, she makes her own attempt. She turns feverish and recovers only to realize she still has a mission, and time is surely running out. The viewer frets that the child will be too late, or worse — that she will be recaptured in Occupied France by Nazi-sympathizing countrymen.
What will Julia find out as she investigates this story almost 70 years later, and how will that affect how she lives her life with the family she has married into? What collective guilt will an entire generation of French carry to their graves?
The performances here are riveting, with young Mélusine carrying this story's flashbacks with brio and urgency. Thomas, ever regal and as at home acting in French as she is in English, makes us care that Julia cares what happened to this girl. The great Niels Arestrup (A Prophet) turns up as a farmer who figures in Sarah's odyssey, and Aidan Quinn is another American with ties to the principals.
Director Paquet-Brenner never loses track of the narrative, never forgets that this is a mystery, a nervous thriller and a poignant remembrance, a movie driven by its vivid life-or-death story and the characters who live it. That makes Sarah's Key the rare Holocaust tale that punches through the cobwebs of history and its dry, inhuman statistics, bringing that terrible past to life.