FILM RATING: 4 stars
The best movie I've seen in 2011 so far is Sarah's Key (2010). This French-English import is one of those little "sleeper" movies that totally surprises you and blows you away when you see it. Sarah's Key has a very emotional core to it that really looks into the human condition from multiple perspectives. And it searches for the "truth" within. This is a movie much in the vein of Schindler's List (1993), The Pianist (2002), The Reader (2008), and The English Patient (1996). It's not exactly "light" fare. But it's also not quite as dark as Schindler's List or The Pianist. I found the weaving of the two main story lines, one past and one present, to be perfect. It's not always easy for a filmmaker to pull together past and present set stories, with actors playing the same character at various ages, but director Gilles Paquet-Brenner found a way to do it brilliantly. And the same can be said for the way he weaves together both French and English languages into the movie. I never felt like I was "working" to follow the dialogue through reading subtitles. Granted, the movie is only partially subtitled. Parts of it are in English and parts are in French.
The story centers around the events of the French round-up of its own Jewish citizens in July 1942. That's right...the French, not the Germans. Of course I'm sure the French were feeling pressure from the Germans during the time. And yet it's hard to overlook the fact that the French were just as guilty of genocide as the Germans and Russians. One can truly understand why there was a "World" war at this time. Sarah's Key is simply sharing another piece of the puzzle that we've been reluctant to look at until recently because of how ugly the puzzle is. The impact of this ugly mindset at the time spreading from country to country across the globe must have been like a virus, gradually infecting each host and getting them from within. The opening scenes with the capture of Sarah's family and their move to an internment camp at Auschwitz are gripping to say the least. Sarah, played brilliantly by young actress Mélusine Mayance, makes a choice on how to save her younger brother from the horrors she anticipates will fall upon them. But that choice has consequences, as we soon find out. I don't want to give too much of the story away, since it is much better to let the movie unfold it for you.
Kristin Scott Thomas plays a modern journalist, investigating this historic incident, while at the same time unravelling a very personal and ironic connection to it. The film does require that you let go of what could be too "coincidental" for reality. But remember, this is a fictional movie at the end of the day, inspired by real events. And movies by their very nature, are contrived to some degree. I never found myself getting lost in my mind thinking about how unrealistic some of the story arcs were. Instead, I simply felt emotionally engaged in the suspenseful and thrilling discovery of all of the secrets that Sarah's Key possesses. And I credit all of the talented artists who contributed to making that possible in this film. The writing, editing, cinematography, production design, acting, music and sound are top notch for this small indie film rumored to be made for less than $10 million. Sarah's Key is an amazing accomplishment for so little money, and a reminder to Hollywood that it's not the size of the budget of a movie that really matters for its quality. To me its the assembly and collaboration of many talented people unified to tell a great story.
There are two scenes that really stand out for me in the film. The first being the opening with Sarah and her brother tickling and giggling with each other under the covers in bed. The director is clearly showing us the innocent fun times of childhood. The camera work there and that little slice of "happy" to start the film with are an incredible contrast to the darker more "adult" tone of the rest of the film. The second scene that really caught my eye is when Sarah and a fellow young female companion are floating in a murky, muddy river, cleansing themselves. Both of these scenes are just small, idealized, dreamy cinematic sequences that on their own, offer needed artistic moments of escape from the story. Within any horrific context, there's always still something beautiful to be discovered and seen if one looks for it. And director Paquet-Brenner shares that.
Music composer Max Richter has created an unbelievably perfect music score for Sarah's Key that not only elevates the film, but is an incredible work to listen to all on its own. The score has mostly a classic sound to it, but Richter also incorporates bits of modern music composition and style as well. It's one of the best film scores I've heard in years. Within the film, the score gives many scenes their emotional gravity, as is typically the case. But something about Richter's music here stands out from the typical score. And you'll know it when you hear it.
I could spend a lot more time discussing the themes, ideas and incredible filmmaking prowess present in Sarah's Key, but I firmly believe in letting movies speak for themselves as well. I've given you a little to chew on and hopefully inspire you to see this film, even though on the surface (or by its book cover), Sarah's Key looks like a "heavy" film. I challenge you to watch it and grab on to it in some manner. It's movies like this that really give cinema its name. And I'm glad to see that we are still making these films, especially within the broader worldwide cinematic context we are now within.
At the end of Sarah's Key, my eyes were red from the tears that flowed throughout the film. And my mind was speechless as I just embraced the very strong emotional connection I felt with the story and the film. I'm personally always looking for movies that can give me that kind of experience. Don't get me wrong, I love the epic, action-filled extravaganzas like Inception (2010) and Saving Private Ryan (1998) as well. But it's small films like Sarah's Key that more often fill my cinematic diet now with the nutrition that I need.