September 1, 2011

Holocaust Escape Leads to Plot Confusion

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The pages of history have provided Hollywood with some of its most memorable characters and storylines. Apollo 13, Lawrence of Arabia and The King’s Speech are all movies inspired by the history books and are amazing. This, however, is not exactly the case with Sarah’s Key, a movie written and directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner. Based on the novel of the same name by Tatiana de Rosnay, the movie mainly revolves around the story of a young Jewish girl, Sarah (Melusine Mayance), who struggles to save her brother from being seized by the French police during the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup, a raid during which tens of thousands of  Jews were arrested and taken to Auschwitz.

The movie also tells another story, one that is linked to Sarah’s by coincidence, that of the family who came to own the apartment after Sarah’s family (the Starzynskis) was arrested. Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas) is an American-born reporter who lives with her husband and daughter in the apartment that once belonged to the Starzynkis and who, as part of her job, is doing research in hopes of being able to find out more about the countless victims of the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup, as its 67th anniversary nears. After she makes the connection between herself and Sarah, what was just a simple article becomes personal and enables Julia to make the choice that would permanently change her life for the better.

Sarah, on the other hand, is not as fortunate. At the beginning of the film, she locks her brother in a hidden closet in order to keep him safe. The key becomes her inspiration for survival. After being torn away from her parents and managing to escape custody thanks to her kind demeanor, she finds asylum with Jules (Niels Arestrup) and Geneveive Dufaure (Dominique Frot). After Sarah finds out that her brother had been waiting for her to come and set him free, she is forever haunted by guilt. Although she finds family and stability in the Dufaures, she ends up leaving France and ending her life tragically.

The movie goes back and forth between the stories, as this seems to be the only sensible way to tell them both in a way that makes the viewer wonder what will happen with each until the very end. Although this might work for other films, it just doesn’t work for this one. This may mainly be because of the way Julia’s story is told; it addresses too many things and it’s a bit too all over the place especially when you compare it to Sarah’s, whose story revolves around a single issue. The fact that Julia’s connection to Sarah was slightly forced doesn’t help either. Julia lives in Sarah’s former home. There, Julia spends her last happy moments and does research on the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup.

There were scenes that I found slightly awkward. One that comes to mind is the scene where Julia discusses her research with her co-workers and tells them how the Jewish community didn’t receive help from other civilians when they were being rounded up. The scene becomes rather forced when out of the blue Julia says that one shouldn’t judge others for the things they did or didn’t do. It is clear that the filmmakers wanted their movie to be meaningful but you can’t force that.

I have to say that the film did have some very touching, heart wrenching scenes. It would be impossible for viewers to feel nothing throughout the course of the film. However, the film doesn’t manage to make a lasting impact on the viewer. After any significantly sad scene is over, one just shrugs it off and that’s it; it’s not memorable. And although it is a sad movie, that doesn’t make it particularly good. Drama doesn’t guarantee quality.

Kristin Scott Thomas is a very talented actress, and the fact that Julia seems to be lacking something as a character is not Thomas’ fault, but the writer’s. The truth is that, as a viewer, I didn’t feel any type of connection to the characters. The story doesn’t provide the viewer with memorable or interesting characters other than Sarah.

This movie had the potential to be a truly great film. In fact, ten minutes into the film I was completely into it. However, the moment Sarah goes back to her old apartment and finds her brother is when the film starts to go downhill. I thought that the whole movie was going to be all about Sarah’s journey back home, but the movie takes unexpected turns that I suspect were supposed to make the film less predictable As a result, the directors diminished its potential.

Original Author: M. Celeste Gonzalez