Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Reel Thoughts Interview: Could It Happen Here?

When you listen to the vile rhetoric of Christian Conservatives like Michelle Bachmann and her “therapist” husband Marcus, who call LGBT people “barbarians” who are “linked to Satan”, it isn’t hard to sympathize with the foreign-born French Jews in Sarah’s Key, Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s heart-breaking drama based on the best-selling novel by Tatiana De Rosnay. Could such a witch-hunt happen again, this time to the LGBT community, the Mexican immigrant population or the Muslim community?

Director Paquet-Brenner pondered the question of whether such inhumanity as occurs in his film could happen again to another scapegoat minority when we spoke recently at the Phoenix Ritz-Carlton. “I don’t see gay people as different people, so I think everyone will appreciate the story. I am more in a political or religious perspective with Sarah’s Key, but I see where you are going,” Paquet-Brenner replied. “What is very important to me is that the film is universal, and so of course, you can include other minorities such as the gay community. I can see how someone especially in, how you say Deep America (Middle America), I understand how you can feel excluded or attacked, so you can definitely relate to these people. That is very interesting.”


Sarah’s Key interweaves two stories set almost seventy years apart in Paris. In 1942, ten year-old Sarah (the amazing Mélusine Mayance) is a Jew living in the Marais section of Paris when the police suddenly show up door-to-door to arrest all foreign Jews. Instinctively knowing that something terrible will happen to her family, she locks her young brother in a closet, assuring him that she will return. She is sure that her father, hiding in the basement, would come upstairs and free him, but he is found also and there is no one to save the boy as the family is taken to an indoor sports rink called the Vel’ D’Hiv.

In 2009, American journalist Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas) is investigating the infamous round up, where 13,000 French Jews were locked into the hot arena without food, water or bathrooms for three days, leading to conditions much worse than the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina. Those who survived were taken to concentration camps, including Sarah’s family. In her research, Julia discovers shocking connections to Sarah through her French husband’s family, and she is determined to uncover the truth of what happened to the little girl and her brother, who escaped internment in the camps.


“I often say that the story isn’t about a Jewish family, it’s about a family. The same thing could have happened in Rwanda during the genocide,” Paquet-Brenner explained. “It could happen to a gay couple living in Iran or Uganda.” He also knows that Scott Thomas’ following in the gay community holds appeal. “She’s an icon, right? I can see it because she is a very strong woman.”

The film is very faithful to the book. “I chose to work very hard on the screenplay, because if you try to fix it in the editing room, you’re dead. It has to work as a reading experience, and then it translates straight to the screen.” He did expand on what happened to Sarah, which turns out to be one of the film’s most touching parts. He split the filming in two to accommodate Scott Thomas’ schedule and to allow him to give the 1942 scenes the raw, hand-held camera technique that puts you right in the terrifying action.


“The thing with the round-up is that it’s not like the authorities were brutal on purpose with the Vel D’Hiv, it’s just that they were totally unprepared. In the police, you had people who were against it, and people who supported it. It was a very, very difficult time in France, society was totally torn apart. You had this Vichy Government who was collaborating with the Germans. My grandfather was a German Jew from Berlin and he was arrested by the French. It was very complicated. I like when Kristin says to the young journalist (who asks why no one objected to the round up), “What would you have done? You have no idea what you would do in that situation. Some people want to simplify it; I don’t.”

Paquet-Brenner has already received acclaim and French awards for his first film, Pretty Things, in which future Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard played twin sisters, one who assumes the other’s identity when she is murdered. The handsome director shows such mastery with Sarah’s Key, he deserves Oscar attention as well.


Sarah’s Key Review:

As terrible as it sounds, some films about the Holocaust and its aftermath leave you feeling unmoved, well-made though they may be. Schindler’s List was the most searing and gut-wrenching experience on the subject, and Sarah’s Key possesses a more modulated but similar power to devastate you.

Kristin Scott Thomas plays a part close to her life as Julia, an American married to a French man and living in Paris. Julia is a passionate journalist who wants to shed light on a shameful period in France’s history, when they aided the Nazis in persecuting the Jews. Like in Arizona today, however, it was the foreign-born who were singled out for arrest and who found themselves demonized by the politicians.


Julia discovers the story of one little girl who escaped in order to save her brother who’d been left behind in their Paris apartment, but she has no clue how close to home the story will hit. Gilles Paquet-Brenner does an incredible job putting you into Sarah’s life, and seamlessly layering it with Julia’s journey of discovery and heartache. The film leaves you feeling uplifted by the end, much like the experience of reading a perfect novel.

The performances, especially by young Mélusine Mayance as Sarah and Scott Thomas, will leave you catching your breath with their honest power. The story itself will reduce you to tears many times, but Paquet-Brenner is a compassionate director who cuts back and forth in time perfectly, saving you from dissolving into uncontrollable sobbing from the brutality of the 1942 atrocities.

Sarah’s Key is a mystery well worth unlocking, and you will find one of the best films of the year.

Interview and review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.

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