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Elle s’appelait Sarah

August 20, 2011
Elle s'appelait Sarah

Who doesn’t love a Holocaust movie?  I don’t mean to sound callous, but it seems that writers and filmmakers treat it as a bottomless well of easy tragedy — what one commenter here recently called “human rights porn” in the context of The Whistleblower.  It takes a lot of the work out of eliciting an emotional reaction, but at the cost of blurring whether the movie itself is particularly effective or if it’s just piggybacking on all the other Holocaust movies we’ve all seen.  But who’s going to say anything against it, at the risk of being branded an anti-Semite if not a Nazi?  So while I think that Elle s’appelait Sarah is well-done, it’s hard to really be sure.

Against this backdrop, we have to ask what it is this film brings that hasn’t been done to death before.  Unlike most others, this time we focus on the goings-on in France, specifically the Rafle du Vélodrome d’Hiver.  Like the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto, this was a mass arrest and roundup of 13,000 Jews who were housed for days in a vélodrome — an indoor bicycle-racing stadium — before being shipped off to internment camps.  This is made clear to us by an American expatriate journalist, Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas), who explains it in a massive chunk of exposition to a couple historically-ignorant young writers at her magazine.

At the same time, Julia and her husband,  Bertrand Tézac (Frédéric Pierrot), inherit an apartment from his grandmother.  She learns that the family first moved in in August of 1942, shortly after the roundup.  It doesn’t take much to learn that it had previously been occupied by a Jewish family.

We also follow the story of young Sarah Starzynski (Mélusine Mayance), who had lived in the apartment.  When the gendarmes came she hid her younger brother in a secret closet and made him promise to wait for her, locking the door with a tiny key.  Through her ordeal, she struggles to return and release him, if only to be back together again.  In the present, Julia searches for the story of the Starzynski family.  She finds no records of Sarah or Michèle being deported, and hopes to find some word of what happened to them.

Scott Thomas has made a career for herself recently with these French films, and I don’t know of anyone else who could play the expatriate Julia so effectively.  Mayance is charming and heartbreaking as she deals with material no child her age should even have to act out.  Thankfully, we avoid dealing with the worst of the atrocities, at least head-on.

But there are also some glaring problems; every scene in Julia’s magazine office is painfully crammed with exposition.  The clueless young journalists are probed with “what would you have done?” as if the audience cannot be trusted to reflect on their own without prompting.  The drama between Julia and her husband is also completely tacked-on, with no good justification besides a syrupy payoff in the closing scenes.  And I might be reading too much into it, but naming their family Tézac — pronounced very closely to “Tay-Sachs” — feels a lot more like a sick joke than it should.

The historical sections play far better than the contemporary ones, but I admit that the story would lose a lot of its impact without the contemporary side.  I also think the film may play better to a French audience than an American one.  Not being French myself, I find it far less shocking to be reminded that many of the French people were complicit in the Nazis’ crimes.  The fact is played more like a big reveal that fell somewhat flat.

Yes, horrible things were done and yes, the psychic consequences echo forward through the generations.  It’s important never to forget what happened, and even to personalize the stories so they don’t turn into mere statistics.  But all too often it feels more like taking one’s medicine than anything really edifying.  It may be good for you to watch this film, but I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t.  For the most part it’s been done before and done better.

Worth It: yes, but it’s hardly essential.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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