Seen separately, the two main threads of Sarah’s Key look awfully familiar: One offers a tear-jerking child’s-eye view of the Holocaust, packed with all the anguish and horror the setting allows, while the other centers on a determined journalist digging up the truth, ignoring the cost to herself and her increasingly resentful family. But Tatiana De Rosnay’s novel uses them to comment intelligently on each other, and director Gilles Paquet-Brenner (again co-scripting with Serge Joncour; the two adapted Joncour’s novel UV together in 2007) expands her vision, dramatizing her events convincingly, if not always creatively.
In the present-day thread, American-born, Paris-dwelling magazine writer Kristin Scott Thomas pitches a story about the Vélodrome d’Hiver roundup of 1942, when the French government collaborated with the Nazis to arrest and deport more than 13,000 Jews. Her research puts her on the track of a young girl named Sarah (Mélusine Mayance), who protected her younger brother from the roundup by locking him in a closet. As Thomas pursues the story, she finds an uncomfortable connection to her husband and his family, who discourage her increasingly obsessive investigation. Meanwhile, in her own timeline, Mayance attempts to escape German custody and get back to Paris to free her trapped brother.
Paquet-Brenner often plays the story for melodrama, to varying effect. The sequences in the Vélodrome d’Hiver, where thousands of Jews were held in grotesque conditions before being shipped to concentration camps, are vivid and horrifying, but the camp scenes are occasionally overplayed for bathos, and take place on a distractingly minimalist scale. Meanwhile, Thomas’ spats with her husband (Frédéric Pierrot), who wants her to terminate her unplanned pregnancy, are mere distraction (and twee symbol), and seem disproportionately petty compared to Mayance’s outsized travails.
But the film version of Sarah’s Key showcases two daring decisions that take the material out of well-trod territory. Mayance’s story continues into adulthood, exploring how her childhood experiences shaped her life and influenced following generations; the Holocaust is just the beginning, not the sum of her story. Meanwhile, Thomas becomes increasingly accusatory toward everyone who doesn’t share her intense focus on the past. In condemning them for their complacency and ignorance, she starts wielding history like a weapon, careless of whom she harms; she isn’t a standard journalist-hero so much as a selfish provocateur, and a judgmental outsider. Briefly, Sarah’s Key consciously touches on questions that the similarly dual-tracked Incendies unintentionally raised: How much pain should a generation have to suffer to redress the sins of a past generation? And where’s the line between respecting someone’s memory and wallowing in past agonies? Sarah’s Key veers in and out of conventionality, and ultimately sinks into it at the end. But first, it deals with old types in new ways, raising issues as it raises hackles.