Sarah’s Key / Elle s’appelait Sarah (2010)

Elle s'appelait Sarah

With Kristin Scott Thomas charmingly exposing family secrets, Sarah’s Key combines the horror of the Vel d’Hiv round-up with modern traumas and untold stories.

Sarah’s Key

Bonjour Tristesse by Mark Wilshin

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s film is almost as enigmatic as Magritte’s own door-locking inspired painting The Glass Key. Its French title Elle s’appelait Sarah disavows this search for unlocking meaning at the film’s core somewhat, its direct translation more redolent of an afternoon TV movie. But nevertheless the key haunts the film visually, from the opening round-up scene in 1942 where Jewish girl Sarah’s best intentions lead her to lock her little brother in a wall cupboard to her adult son’s almost present-day discovery of his mother’s diaries. But as a metaphor, it’s more glassy. With multicoloured eye-catchers of female independence, cross-continental reinvention and architectural guilt, Sarah’s Key is a lock worth trying.

Based on the book by American novelist Tatiana de Rosnay but also dedicated to members of the Brenner family, Sarah’s Key has a rather unsure tone, veering choppily between holocaust melodrama and literary chick flick. Kristin Scott Thomas shines in the intimate scenes she dominates – conjugal conversations about late-in-life babies or delicate car-bound confessions from her father-in-law – but even her arresting performance struggles to counterbalance the woeful hokery of some of the less experienced English-speaking actors. They’re not helped, of course, by a patronising script which infodumps the Vel d’Hiv round-up backstory rather gratuitously, placing the viewer in the same ignorant position as her youthful colleagues. But it does nevertheless occasion some poignant remarks, such as the city planning irony of having a department for the Ministère de l’Intérieur so close to the site of the velodrome.

The depiction of France’s role in the Holocaust is vivid enough, the recreation of the long pulled down velodrome and the Parisian flat in the Marais both atmospheric and gripping. With nary a Nazi in sight, except for some grotesquely jocular ones heading to Pigalle on leave, Sarah’s Key lays the blame firmly at France’s door. And yet, this is no national self-flagellation. It’s rigorously even-handed, its impartiality even symbolised by a balcony conversation between two neighbours, equally accusing and defensive of the Jews’ plight. There are good French and bad, from the concierge who denounces them and the anti-Semitic police, to the guard who lets Sarah escape and the farmhouse couple who take her in.

This distinction between resistance and collaboration haunts the film in the present day too. Renovating the flat in the rue de Saintonge that had been in her husband Bertrand’s family since the war, the question hangs fuggily in the air – did they acquire it legitimately or profit from the Jews’ deportation? The almost architectural response to the holocaust is intriguing, the sense of history living both literally and figuratively within those walls and the guilt history inspires in the living. There’s a reluctant secretiveness from the family about Julia’s uncloseting of skeletons, but there’s a feel-good resolution to the Tezac past too, as documents testify to the father’s generosity with Sarah in a correspondence of letters. French reputation comes close to being tainted, but emerges in the end as white as the driven snow, any misappropriation or wrongdoing excused as “C’est la guerre” – with no hint of irony.

The film’s structure centres around a lost story of survival. Like the professor fleshing out the terrible statistics with lives, testimonies and stories, the key, if there is one, to Sarah’s Key is unspoken survival. Sarah’s story is kept secret by the Tezac family, who keep any stench from the walls at bay with a monthly allowance, and also by the Dufaure family, who hide her in wartime but finally lose contact with her. Become distant and wild, Sarah flees to America, where her secret is safeguarded by her husband, who only reveals it to their son after Julia’s morally ambiguous nose-poking. Sarah herself takes it to an untimely grave back in France, as she veers her Citroën into a lorry, the reasoning behind her suicide impenetrably murky. Perhaps she’s unable to overcome her guilt at her brother’s death, or even to live in the country of the perpetrators, too distraught and disenfranchised. It’s only because of Julia that Sarah’s story emerges from the shadows of forgotten history.

There are other facets to Sarah’s Key though too, such as Julia’s long hoped for baby and the family it tears apart, as she and Bertrand find themselves on either side of an irreconcilable divide. Or the trans-Atlantic self-reinventions that echo throughout the film, both Sarah’s and William head to a new continent to start a new life, and Julia finds herself living in Brooklyn with Zoé and her new baby daughter, unable to escape the ghosts of France and her past. But it’s never quite clear how the stories compare or why Julia can’t help herself, but race round the world raking up other people’s muck.

For a film so personally political, the slowly permeating conclusion to Sarah’s Key is curiously feminist. Like the abortion Julia’s husband wants her to undergo, Sarah’s is the story history wants to keep quiet. It’s only Julia’s dogged, and occasionally belligerent pursuit of the truth that allows the story to live, despite the pain it causes. It may be holocaust fiction, but like a baby, Sarah’s Key has a life force all of its own.

Sarah’s Key is released in the UK on 5th August 2011

Join the discussion