Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The French Memory Hole: Sarah’s Key

Though it crosses borders and flashes backwards and forwards in time, Sarah Starzynski’s story is French through and through. Decades after the German occupation, a continental journalist pointedly reminds her colleagues of France’s record of complicity while researching the notorious Winter Velodrome Round-Up. In the process, she learns of a particularly tragic case intertwined with her own family history in Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s Sarah’s Key (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Julia Jarmond’s husband has just assumed ownership of his family’s plum apartment in a thoroughly gentrified Parisian neighborhood. However, before the War, it was the traditional Jewish quarter. The Tezacs moved in shortly after the Round-Up. It is a coincidence her husband never cared to examine, but has nagged at her father-in-law Edouard for decades. When Jarmond confirms the previous occupants, the Starzynskis, were indeed Jewish citizens forced to vacate by the French police, she sets out to learn the fate of the only family member to survive the war, young tweener Sarah.

As we watch in flashbacks, Starzynski quickly grasps the nature of her temporary transit camp. Managing to escape, she eventually finds sanctuary with the Dufaures, stolid examples of French peasantry at its finest. Yet, Starzynski was desperate to return to her family’s Parisian apartment for reasons involving the titular key and the young brother hidden in a secret closet.

With no German characters whatsoever, Key never even reaches the concentration camps. All the holding camps and deportations viewers witness are entirely French, which though indefensible, will look relatively mild compared to the gruesome Holocaust imagery many might expect. Instead of revisiting German brutality (basically considered a given), Key is far more concerned with examining French guilt, both on the national level as well as the more complicated personal manifestations. In fact, Paquet-Brenner’s restraint serves Key rather well, allowing him to make his points on collective French memory holes without dooming the film to didacticism.

It is hard to imagine anyone but the elegant and bilingual Kristin Scott Thomas as Jarmond. Fluently moving between languages while seamlessly maintaining character, she projects a sensitive intelligence and mature allure that is always compulsively watchable. Yet, it is Niels Arestrup who truly makes the picture as Sarah’s adopted father, Jules Dufaure. His portrayal of reluctant heroism and hardscrabble dignity is unexpectedly compelling.

Frankly, Key’s greatest flaw is a structural problem most likely inherited from Tatiana de Rosnay’s bestselling source novel. Right from the beginning, there is never any mystery about the key’s significance and since Starzynski safely returns to the fateful flat approximately midway through the film, the entire second half is largely anti-climatic. Still, KST makes the most of Jarmond’s dramatic moments, including a particularly touching scene with Michel Duchaussoy as Edouard Tezac, another fundamentally decent Frenchman.

Ultimately, Key is a solid, faultlessly tasteful film, distinguished by the work of the ever striking KST and two rough around the edges late middle-aged Frenchmen. For French audiences, it is also a rather necessary memory jogger. Recommended with respect, Key opens this Friday (7/22) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.