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Horrifying Past, Muddled Present

This is two films, “Sarah’s Key.” One is about French collaboration with the Nazis during the Holocaust, the other is a tale of trans-Atlantic yuppie angst. Julia (Kristin Scott Thomas) is a magazine writer with a hell of a story to tell — how Parisian Jews were rounded up by the French authorities in the summer of 1942, herded into a sports arena, then into camps, and finally shipped east. Sarah (Mélusine Mayance), the daughter of the doomed Starzynski family, convinces her little brother to hide in the closet when the cops come, and she locks him in, making him promise to keep quiet. It’s obvious that nobody’s ever going back for any reason, and watching the horror mount as the family members are separated, as Sarah escapes with a friend and as the boy’s remains are discovered is a powerful piece of filmmaking. Director Gilles Paquet-Brenner deserves credit for handling this violent material with understatement and class. However, as one of the screenwriters (with Serge Joncour, based on a novel by Tatiana De Rosnay), he is also on the spot for foisting a fairly flabby tale of Julia’s husband’s family being the ones who took over the Starzynski apartment, who were there when young Sarah burst in looking for her brother and who have held on to this deep dark secret ever since. But what, exactly, is the secret? That this French family — the Tezacs — rented an apartment that had been occupied by a Jewish family? Why is this cause for generations of shame? Were they supposed to buck the Vichy French and, by extension, the Nazis? It’s not very clear. A far better question would have been, since the apartment smelled awful, and the closet was locked, why on earth didn’t the Tezac family break the door open? The flashbacks include brief sequences of French citizens mocking their Jewish neighbors as they are led off, and all the French cops look like de Gaulle, more or less. So maybe the idea is to point out different levels of guilt or responsibility. If so, it gets lost in the yuppie drama, as Julia, now obsessed with tracking down Sarah, jets all over the place and fights with her husband about whether or not to have an abortion. The flashback sequences are skillfully done and absolutely riveting. The present-day sequences suffer from a lack of focus. Is this a historical thriller, or is this a self-esteem exercise? Worth seeing for Thomas and Mayance alone, but the rest of the cast, also, is solid and convincing. Rated PG-13 for disturbing sequences about the Holocaust. “Sarah’s Key” is playing widely.

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