on 5 December 2011
I haven't read the book from which this film was adapted, so am purely assessing my reaction to the movie itself. Based around a 'hidden' piece of French history - the infamous events of July 1942 in Paris, the Vel d'Hiv round-up and processing of Jews to the camps, carried out not by the Germans, but the French themselves, the film is interesting in that it abjures easy black and white conclusions. The central character, an American journalist in the present day, married to a Frenchman, and resident in Paris, replies to a young American colleague's condemnation of those war-time Parisians 'And what would you have done at that time?' - recognising that the real horror is how the possibility for evil acts belongs not 'out there' but is latent in each of us. The star of this film,the bank-roller, is Kristin Scott-Thomas, and she is magnificent - but each of the actors, whether English or French speaking, delivers truthful, intense and interesting performances.
Part of the challenge and fascination of the movie lies in the constant shifting time-scale, from 1940's Paris to 60 years later, where Scott-Thomas's character, with moral decisions of her own to face, gets drawn into an investigation from the past, the events of which impinge directly on her life in present day, as her husband's family flat was 'acquired' after the expulsion of the Jews. The sense of rugs being pulled from under feet, the insecurity of the present, and how the past and the present are tied to each other - and yet strange to each other, is intensified by the two-languages of the movie - partly in English, partly in French, so there is always the sense of Scott-Thomas trying to straddle the divides of language and culture, to communicate across time and space.
The DVD extras, in the form of a 'making of the film' documentary was, for the most part, equally interesting. Several of the actors and extras had histories of their own - either personal, or family survivors of the Shoah - including the director. One particularly chilling moment was with a conversation with a group of extras, most young, but with one elderly woman. The young women are laughing, as the old woman says IF she had ever married she would have had a grand-daughter like one of the young girls. They laugh,saying were you never married, never? And the woman says 'no - who could I marry, I couldn't marry a Christian, and there were no Jews left' The actors playing the parents of the central young girl (Melusine Mayance, an extraordinary performance) also brought their own personal sensibilities into their perfcrmances, as people who had been affected by later European 'ethnic cleansings' and the extreme effects of divisive nationalism.
The level of performances, whether from established actors, unknowns or extras, is high. There is a sense that most people involved felt they were doing something more important than just making another film. Though 'Sarah's story' is a fiction, it is representative of many real, horrific stories, belonging to people whose own stories died with them, or with those who survived, and whose descendants may still carry deep scars