Elle s’Appelait Sarah,” like so many films these days, uses the device of multiple narratives. First you’ve got a story set in the present, where journalist Julia (Kristin Scott Thomas) is investigating a bit of repressed French history: the 1942 roundup of Parisian Jews, where thousands of people were imprisoned in the Vel d’Hiv stadium for a week before being shipped off to Auschwitz. The pogrom was notable for having been carried out by French police, not the Nazis, and for taking place a stone’s throw from that symbol of Parisian allure, the Eiffel Tower.
Then the film (released in English-speaking territories as “Sarah’s Key”) skips back to the 1940s for a re-creation of these terrible events, as seen through the eyes of a young Jewish girl named Sarah (Mélusine Mayance), whose family are evicted from their home and sent to the stadium as neighbors look on silently.
The meeting point between these two stories comes when Julia begins to suspect that the apartment owned by her in-laws — which her husband has restored for them to live in — may have originally belonged to Sarah’s family.
Sometimes the critical reaction to a film is almost as interesting as the film itself. That’s certainly the case with “Elle s’Appelait Sarah”; review after review has commented on the visceral terror and emotional impact of the Holocaust part of the film, as compared with the very middle-class troubles of career woman Julia, whose relationship with her husband has become rocky due to an unexpected pregnancy. To hear the critics tell it, the film is a cross between “Schindler’s List” and “Eat Pray Love.”
But this is missing the point. Director Gilles Paquet-Brenner, working from the bestselling novel by Tatiana de Rosnay, does not seek to equate Julia’s worries with Sarah’s, but instead to raise a few questions. What does it mean to live amidst history? Is “never forget” little more than an empty slogan? What good is knowledge of injustice if one can discard it when inconvenient?
“Elle s’Appelait Sarah” is a good solid drama, and it makes you consider these questions without ever getting preachy on you. History, the film insists, is personal, and Brenner etches this unforgettably in the faces of his characters.
Take Niels Arestrup, an actor not well known outside of France (though he did outstanding work as a Corsican Mafia boss in “A Prophet”): He plays a gruff farmer, concerned for his own safety, and unwilling to risk helping a couple of stray Jewish girls on the run. Yet when he wakes in the morning and finds the girls shivering and sick on the floor of his chicken coop, there’s but one brief shot of his reaction, and Arestrup absolutely nails it, the look of a man’s heart changing from indifference to empathy.
Scott-Thomas, a former au pair who’s as comfortable in French as she is in English, is so routinely excellent we take it for granted these days. She’s known best for playing women who are all backbone — see “Nowhere Boy,” “Gosford Park” or “The English Patient” — and while that’s on display here as well, she shows a greater amount of self-doubt and, dare I say, softness.
Brenner keeps the mise-en-scène cool and sleek in the present, the better to contrast with the increasingly handheld and chaotic aesthetic for the scenes in the Vel d’Hiv (perhaps a remnant from his horror-movie resume). While there have been a lot of Holocaust movies to date, these scenes may rank amongst the most heartrending: An aerial shot that tracks through the desperation in the stadium-turned-prison, without heat or toilets, hammers home the inhuman cruelty that was inflicted.
Again, next to this, the modern-day story seems far less consequential. But the comparisons are deliberate, I suspect: We see that old farmer and his wife, childless, yet taking in a girl in desperate need and treating her as their own. We see Sarah, yearning her whole life for the brother she never saw again. And then we see Julia’s husband, arguing that he’s too busy with his career to have a child in his life right now, and certainly too busy to worry about whose apartment it was once was. He’s not a bad man, but he’s busy.
One of the key questions of life in the modern world is to what extent we, as individuals, bear responsibility for the decisions of society. If you’re opposed to nuclear power, what does it mean to consume Tepco’s electricity? Or if you oppose factory farming, is it ever OK to eat a fast-food burger? Did my iPhone come from that Chinese factory where workers are jumping out windows to their deaths?
For a lot of people, the response is to simply tune out: We live in a complex world, and the decisions made by higher institutions seem remote. Of course, that’s what those under the Nazis said, isn’t it? “Elle s’Appelait Sarah” walks us through the minefield of making ethical decisions, of knowing when it’s time to take a stand, however symbolic.