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History Repossesses French Flat

Sarah's Key (2010)

Julien Bonet/The Weinstein Company

"Sarah's Key" combines two initially different topics — the mass deportation of Parisian Jews in 1942 and modern-day Parisian property values — in a forthright, direct and respectful way. The main characters are two women of fearsome intelligence and drive. One is Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas), an American expat and savvy journalist. The other is Sarah Starzynski (Mélusine Mayance), a blonde 10-year-old who learns incredibly fast what it's going to take for her to survive. But the way in which the stories are combined doesn't make it clear for whom this movie is aimed.

It's hard to believe that kids will be interested in the scenes of Julia arguing with her husband (Frédéric Pierrot, who is meant to be a wizard of business while looking like an overflowing laundry hamper) over a major change in their marriage. It's equally hard to believe adults will buy the scenes of Julia's young British coworkers insisting they would have behaved differently during the Vel' d'Hiv roundup. Meanwhile the scenes of screaming Jewish children being torn from their mothers' arms are hard on everyone.

Director Gilles Paquet-Brenner has made a very tactful movie. The horror of what happens to Sarah and her family is very clear, but there's no wallowing in it — which is why it seems the movie could be appropriate for older children. Ms. Mayance, who has done some work for French television, is simply astonishing, while Ms. Scott Thomas continues to demonstrate entire oceans of feeling with one flick of her eyes. Someone give her an Oscar already. But Mr. Paquet-Brenner gradually moves away from Julia and Sarah to introduce William Rainsferd (Aidan Quinn, who is very welcome in his new career as a European character actor). This shift of focus might have worked in the original novel by Tatiana de Rosnay, but it weakens the emotional impact of the final part of the film. It also leaves too many questions about Julia unanswered.

The production design by Françoise Dupertuis (who also worked on "Female Agents") cleverly reverses the usual time-skip tropes. The modern scenes are filmed in locations — wine bars, offices, remodeled apartments — which are starkly black and white. By contrast, the wartime scenes explode with color, whether in a concentration camp or a crowded farmhouse. But an overbearing soundtrack spoils the subtlety of the visual design. The wonderful crane shot of the girls in the wheat field, for example, would have been much more powerful in silence if Mr. Paquet-Brenner had trusted that we in the audience knew what we should feel.

Is "Sarah's Key" designed to make French adults think about what their grandparents did in the war? The explicit references to Iraq and Afghanistan imply that this is the case. But if that's so, then why make a movie with the emotional intelligence of a child? Or is that the only level at which an honest discussion can be had? Maybe "Sarah's Key" is a movie for grandparents and grandchildren to watch together. They can look at Sarah's huge eyes and ask themselves: If this were me in that circumstance, what would I do? What would I want other people to have done?


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