Most of the nations of Europe have some blood on their hands from World War II, but France's legacy in the war is especially complicated, wavering between heroism (the French resistance) and shameful complicity (the Vichy regime that ruled the nation in collaboration with the Nazis from 1940 to 1944). The dichotomy of France's history is especially pronounced when it comes to the movies. While most French films dealing with the war have tried to put a positive spin on what happened, there are a handful that offer a more realistic view of French life under occupation, most notably Louis Malle's Lacombe Lucien and Marcel Ophüls' documentary The Sorrow and the Pity. Gilles Paquet-Brenner's drama Elle S'Appelait Sarah (aka Sarah's Key) joins the ranks of French films that look back honestly to the grim legacy of Vichy, offering a stark reminder of how many were willing to stand by and watch genocide happen, while also pondering how we are to come to terms with the tragedies of our collective past.
Sarah's Key follows two parallel stories, separated by more than 50 years yet connected by the actions of a few characters. Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas) is an American journalist living in 21st century Paris with her husband, Bertrand (Frédéric Pierrot), and his daughter from a previous marriage. Julia is working on a magazine piece about the Vel' d'Hiv Roundup of 1942, in which the Vichy government used French police to gather together 13,000 Jews living in Paris, crammed them into a cycling stadium for several days without food, water, or toilets, and then shipped them off to concentration camps, where they would be executed. As Julia is researching the story, she discovers there's a connection between the roundup and her husband's family -- Bertrand's father first moved into the apartment building they own today after a Jewish family was forced out by the police. The story hits even closer to home for Julia as Bertrand has just renovated a flat in the same building, where he intends for them to live. Determined to know more, Julia begins tracking down the story of the family who used to live there, and in flashback we meet Sarah Starzynski (Mélusine Mayance), a nine-year-old girl who tried to hide her younger brother from the authorities by locking him in the closet when the police arrived to round up Jewish families. When she realizes that she and her folks are not going to be released soon, she becomes grimly determined to make her way back to Paris and save her brother before it's too late. As we follow Sarah's story, Julia learns the truth about her in-laws and their role in Sarah's fate, and at the same time, Julia is confronted with a serious crisis in her marriage.
Kristin Scott Thomas has been living in France for some time and has been landing more satisfying roles in European films than those made in America, and Sarah's Key demonstrates that, at least creatively speaking, this has been good for her. There aren't many movies made in the United States lately that deal with a smart woman in her early fifties dealing with personal and professional challenges while looking beautiful but also clearly her own age, and that's just what Thomas gets to do in Sarah's Key. Though her New York accent is sometimes a bit off, Thomas otherwise never makes a wrong step, and her compassion, curiosity, and determination make Julia the ideal anchor for this story. While Julia provides the framework that holds the threads of the story together, ultimately this is Sarah's story, and Mélusine Mayance gives a fierce, committed performance that would be impressively intense for any actor, let alone one so young, and Charlotte Poutrel gives the same character a fascinating, enigmatic beauty as an adult. Niels Arestrup and Dominique Frot are very good as a farming couple who become Sarah's reluctant benefactors, and Aidan Quinn shines in a small role as Sarah's long-lost son.
Director Gilles Paquet-Brenner wrote the screenplay for Sarah's Key in collaboration with Serge Joncour, adapting the story from Tatiana de Rosnay's novel, and for the most part they do a splendid job of mixing and matching the two primary narrative threads, allowing Sarah's story to inform Julia's while each also stands on its own. The film's final act seems like an effort to add a third path that merges the two, and it's not nearly as effective; however, Paquet-Brenner's pacing remains fluid and he draws consistently fine work from his cast. He's also aided by a top-notch crew, particularly cinematographer Pascal Ridao and production designer Françoise Dupertuis, who help give the picture an uncluttered but realistic look. Sarah's Key takes a stark look at Vichy France and its legacy; there are rather few true heroes or thorough villains, as most characters are just struggling to make their way through a difficult and dangerous time, and often they are simply trying to save themselves when conscience occasionally forces them to step forward for others. In Sarah's Key, few people are truly innocent, but there's little to gain from ignoring the past, and a willingness to search out the truth proves to be rewarding for these characters as well as the audience watching them.