This French film about atrocities committed by the State during World War II can be best summed up by a German word: Vergangenheitsbewältigung. There is no French or English equivalent, but essentially it means 'struggling to come to terms with the past,' which goes right to the heart of Sarah's Key (Elle s'appelait Sarah). Lead by a deeply compassionate performance from Kristin Scott Thomas (I've Loved You So Long) as an American journalist in Paris, Sarah's Key brings to light the horrors of the Vel'd'Hiv Roundup in 1942. Though based on Tatiana de Rosnay's bestselling fiction, the film revisions the actual events of the 16th and 17th July 1942, when the French police rounded up over 13,000 Jews and interned them in an inner city velodrome. 67 years later Julia (Scott Thomas) begins researching a story on the event, and discovers a terrible truth that literally extends right into her home.
Julia's emotionally charged journey in present day Paris is interlaced with the fate of the eponymous Sarah (Mélusine Mayance), a plucky young girl whose family is wrenched apart during the roundup. The scenes are agonisingly realised; director Gilles Paquet-Brenner (UV) achieves a devastatingly visceral experience, which pivots on the impressively honest performance of Mayance. The present day scenes were always going to be tricky by comparison, for doling out a serious lesson in 'Lest We Forget' needs to be extremely careful to stave off any bleeding hearts.
Mostly, Sarah's Key succeeds, particularly in communicating the vital importance of bringing such stories to the surface before the war generation disappears completely. Paquet-Brenner was also the first feature film director to shoot at the Paris Holocaust Memorial; a stark scene that he does well not to overplay. But while Scott-Thomas lends her marvellous gravitas and keen empathy to the film, even she stumbles through some overwritten moments, including the film’s cloyingly sentimental final scene.
Paquet-Brenner had a tough row to hoe in balancing the past and the present. His decision to spend more time in the modern day comes at the cost of really getting to know Sarah, however it does a fair bit to interrogate our contemporary conscience: "What would you have done?" Julia demands of her co-worker. This is a worthy question, and indeed a worthy film.
Australian release date: 23 December 2010