Published Aug 18, 2011Early on in Gilles Paquet-Brenner's adaptation of the Tatiana de Rosnay novel, Sarah's Key, a couple of interns and fact-checkers at the France-based boutique magazine where American Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas) has relocated ask, "What is Vel' D'Hiv?"
In expository fashion, briefly acknowledging the film's template of memory and ongoing connection to the past, Julia details the 1942 roundup of Parisian Jews by police, wherein entire families were relocated to the Vélodrome D'Hiver, an indoor cycling track not far from the Eiffel Tower, where they would suffer inhuman living conditions before being shipped off to concentration camps.
From there, she learns of her connection to the event ― an apartment her in-laws took ownership of after the titular ten-year-old Sarah (Mélusine Mayance) and her family were taken ― and treks from France to America to Italy in search of the truth of what became of young Sarah.
Certainly compelling, the mystery unfolds in a devastatingly tragic, almost fatalistic fashion, detailing the heartbreak and humanity of the Holocaust with an undeniably moving story sure to test the stoicism of even the most hardened cynic (realist). It's just unfortunate that it's milked dry for melodrama, using the Shoah as narrative catalyst for modern anxieties of upper class guilt.
While surely the intention is to contextualize the past with the present day to reveal importance of memory, the implication that a rich, middle-aged woman dealing with a "miraculous" pregnancy is somehow thematically similar to that of a young girl whose family was killed in the war is somewhat unseemly. In fact, the longer we tag along on Julia's obsessive (although, not necessarily depicted as such in the film) quest, the less relevant the context of remembrance seems, given that Sarah's story never moves beyond sentimentality.
While much of the acting is top-notch and the faithfulness to the core text is appreciated, it's difficult to determine what exactly the point of it all is beyond emotional climax. Despite the heartbreaking artifice, it's hard not to notice the constant contrivances and thematic disconnects between storylines, which keep this middlebrow fare from being as smart as it is touching. (A-Z Films)