REVIEW: Kristin Scott Thomas' Bold Presence Anchors Sarah's Key
The notion of a haunted house is almost quaint to those who live in big cities, where there is barely room -- literally and spiritually -- for their own lives, much less the legacy of those that came before. Apartments especially turn over every couple of years instead of once a generation. The inflections of essentially temporary living are beyond what we can be conscious of, and meaningful consideration of the narrative history of one's present, private habitat is among the many things omitted for space. Eleanor Roosevelt's Union Square crash pad got a plaque, it's true, but Bobby Fischer grew up in a building down the Brooklyn block from where I'm sitting now, and you'd never know it to pass by.
New York City's over-tilled real estate acreage is a giant tenement museum compared to the stories locked inside the brick and mortar bones of Paris. One of those stories is the subject of Sarah's Key, a disjointed unfurling of the history housed in a Marais apartment whose inhabitants -- a family of four -- were destroyed by their sudden evacuation on a July day in 1942. Young Sarah (Mélusine Mayance) and her parents were three of the 13,000 Jews rounded up over two days and confined to a sports arena known as the Vélodrome d'Hiver. (Another film on this subject, The Round-Up, starring Mélanie Laurent, is due out later this year.) Before being dragged from their home by the French police -- the collusion of the police with the Nazi occupiers and the malignant indifference of their fellow Parisians is a point of dramatic import here -- Sarah hid her little brother in a secret bedroom closet and made him promise to stay put. It is the key to this closet that she keeps close during the ordeal that follows, as she struggles to escape the death camp where she winds up and re-unite with her brother.
"People love history," Julia (Kristin Scott Thomas) says during a modern-day pitch meeting in the Paris offices of the glossy general-interest magazine where she works. Julia is interested in writing a big fat story about the Vélodrome, and in the process discovers that her father-in-law's family took possession of a Marais flat in August of 1942. She and her French husband (Michel Duchaussoy) are about to renovate that same flat into a well-feathered empty nest. As Julia goes about investigating the story and realizes that two of its former tenants -- Sarah and her little brother -- seem to be among the 400 who survived the round-up, this becomes a dilemma. Thomas plays Julia, a native New Yorker, with a dishy American accent that manages not to clash with her gumshoe reporter getup of a trenchcoat and navy Chucks. But then the heavy-lidded one has pulled off greater degrees of difficulty by sheer force of domineering screen presence; her present-day co-stars are not as lucky and often, as with her young, historically clueless colleagues, represent types instead of people.
From the beginning director Gilles Paquet-Brenner (Pretty Things) has a tough job in bridging the divide between his two stories, and the combination only gets more treacherous as the miserable depths of the holocaust are paired with a privileged pregnancy drama. Julia's husband, who seems to be some kind of financier and has frequent meetings with the Chinese (shades of the recent Summer Hours color the eventual suggestion that they pick up stakes and move there) does not want another child, and their arguments over the situation highlight deficits in the writing. (Paquet-Brenner adapted Tatiana deRosnay's best-selling novel with Serge Joncour.)
It is also at this point that we leave the unforgettable face of Mayance, who at last measure was being raised by country farmers (wonderfully played by Niels Arestrup and Dominique Frot) and return to Sarah as a young woman, played by Charlotte Poutrel. The decision to keep the adult Sarah completely mute as we move through the story of her exile and marriage to an Italian contributes to the narrative impotence of her ultimate fate. Aidan Quinn is most poorly acquitted as Sarah's adult son, whom Julia seeks out in her increasingly obsessive quest for "the bright, shiny truth," only to wind up broadsiding him with family secrets. Aside from some desperately corny lines ("My whole life is a lie!"), Quinn is the jackstraw that shifts all of the others in the character pile out of place. Sarah's Key wants to engage deeply -- novelistically -- with its subject but mistakes narrative over-embroidery for a density of theme. Though the picture is lovingly and often quite strikingly shot and styled, there are too many dangling and swiftly clipped threads for the film to amount to more than another tasteful Sunday matinee set against one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century.