Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s Sarah’s Key is a very good film that ought to have been a great film, but greatness ultimately proves beyond its grasp—if only just. It is without a doubt a worthy film (the word inescapably clings to it) and it is certainly worth seeing, but it should be noted going in that it comes equipped with a problem it can’t surmount.
The story concerns an American journalist, Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas), living in Paris with her French husband, Bertrand Tezac (Frédéric Pierrot, I’ve Loved You So Long). She gets an assignment to research and write a long article about the 1942 Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup, in which the French police rounded up 8,000 Jews, placed them in conditions that would have done the Nazis themselves proud, transported them to French-controlled concentration camps, and finally sent most of them to Auschwitz. This is a far cry from our usual image of France in World War II, but few of us know much—if anything—about the Pétain government that came into being under the Nazi occupation.
Julia knows something about this era and has written about it before, but this time something unexpected occurs. As she digs into the history, she begins to suspect that the apartment that she and her husband are having renovated and plan to move into—one that’s been in her husband’s family for years—was once the home of Jews who were taken away during the roundup. Not only does she discover that this is true, but that at least some of the older surviving members of the family are fully aware of the apartment’s history, and remember the story of Sarah (Mélusine Mayance), the little girl who hid her little brother from the police in a locked cupboard in the apartment just as she she and the rest of her family were carted away.
The film—which is structured as a kind of mystery story—moves smoothly and effectively between the modern era and its wartime flashbacks. All of this is good. Equally good is the fact that the film sugar coats none of its tragedy, nor does it topple over into easy general condemnation of the French for allowing this to happen. At one point, Julia even asks her horrified colleagues, “How do you know what you would have done?” And the truth is that unless you were there, you don’t—nor do you know how much you would have known about what was going on. The film is also on very solid ground as it traces Sarah’s story through the war and up to the present—and how it continues to impact those connected to it even today.
At this point, you may be wondering why I say the film just misses greatness. Well, it’s not content to leave its story at this. No, it has to drag in a subplot about Julia’s unexpected pregnancy and the turmoil this causes between her and her husband. In itself, there’s nothing wrong with this, but it feels so awfully thin up against the central story that it seems an unnecessary intrusion. It certainly does nothing to enrich the film.
But even with that in mind, Sarah’s Key has much going for it. The entire cast is good, not just the always-interesting Kristin Scott Thomas. Mélusine Mayance, who plays young Sarah, comes very near to giving Thomas a run for her money as the most impressive performer in the film—which is no mean feat. Rated PG-13 for thematic material including disturbing situations involving the Holocaust.