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Yap vs. Yap: Sarah’s Key

by on August 11, 2011
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Two Yappers. One movie. The Holocaust. French people. Boobies.


Austin: With this round of Yap vs. Yap, I am already losing. “Sarah’s Key” has already won Heartland’s Truly Moving Picture Award, critics are liking it across the board, and — oh yeah — it’s a Holocaust film.

Every film that tells a story from this time automatically has a strong emotional connection because even decades later, it is an act too horrifying to comprehend. However, when used in a creative format, all topics are still subject to criticism. Disliking a Holocaust film does not make me pro-Nazi. I don’t like being the cynic when everyone else is inspired, but this film used too many shortcuts and blatant manipulations for my liking. Before I fight my winless battle, Chris, do you want to tell a little bit why you liked “Sarah’s Key” so much and why I, medically, have no heart?

Chris: Well, Austin, you’re a Millenial, which according to the MSM means you’re a self-obsessed brat with no sense of history. Of course, we live in a country where our sixtysomething vice president once claimed that President Roosevelt went on television in 1929 to talk about the stock market crash, so history is not America’s strong suit. It never has been, even back in 1492 when Chris Columbus started making “Home Alone” sequels.

You’re right that there have been some bad, preachy World War II movies, and just because filmmakers are focusing on a reverent subject like the Holocaust means we should cut them some slack. For every “Schindler’s List,” there’s a “Life Is Beautiful” or “Jakob the Liar.”

Personally, I like my films about collective guilt in the mode of “The Reader,” with lots of nudity. Nothing cuts through ponderous material like Kate Winslet getting her kit off.

But I think you’re wrong about “Sarah’s Key.” I was caught up in the parallel quests by the two female characters — Sarah to find her brother and Julia to follow Sarah’s story to the bitter end.

It’s an emotional movie without jerking the audience around. I think it was Alfred Hitchcock who said all filmmaking is inherently manipulative. And he should know: Hitchcock favored Nordic blondes for his leading ladies and tried to convince them to sleep with them, despite his resemblance to Gimli from “The Lord of the Rings,” except homelier.

Austin: Ooo. A Millenial? I love being insulted with new terminology. Nerd, snob, and “Hey, did we ask you to sit here” just gets old after awhile.

My biggest problem was I felt I was jerked around too often during the film. Everyone going into this film already feels the weight of the Holocaust. So the additional emotion comes from these specific characters. Right away, I thought they set up a troubling situation with the titular dilemma. Then once the horrors start in the past, it’s overdone. There is a scene when Sarah’s family is being further separated. It’s an emotional scene because it should be characters we care about, but all of the attention went toward the filmmaking. The music tries to deafen the audience and the chaos in the camera is way too out of place. The quieter moments were more powerful, but those were too few.

Hitchcock’s a pretty smart guy. Every film is manipulative. Every time you move the camera or make an edit, you’re making a decision on how the audience will treat the story. The best manipulation is when it never feels like it’s manipulation. In many ways, the opening of “Up” is obvious manipulation with Michael Giacchino’s beautiful score, but they earnestly build up characters in a short amount of time to make it appear real.

“Sarah’s Key” has a very odd timing issue. This is not the movie’s fault, but I’ve now seen three films this year with a similar structure. “Incendies” and “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” both had modern women in a foreign country investigating a story set in the past. “Incendies” is a film I like a lot, and when pressed against “Sarah’s Key,” there’s a bit of a problem. The past story in “Incendies” has plenty of twists and shocking moments. The final reveal is horrifying, and it more than pays off why so many people kept it a secret.

The reveal with “Sarah’s Key” is not worth all of the investigation. I don’t think there is anyone in the audience who didn’t know what had to happen with Sarah’s decision. It’s a sad and noble predicament, but the journey towards the information was lackluster and full of structural holes.

Obviously, the journey was something that worked for you. Was it because of the subject material or because of the characters themselves?

Chris: Yeesh, here I was talking about Kate Winslet’s boobies and you had to go and get all deep and reflective on me. How can I compete with that? (Hint: More boobies!)

I guess I was caught up in the narrative. Even though we know exactly where each of their investigations are going to lead (SPOILERS AHEAD) — with Sarah finding out that her brother died and Julia learning that her husband’s family was complicit in, or at least benefited from, the treatment of Sarah’s family — I found their twin journeys moving. As Gene Siskel used to say, movies aren’t about what they’re about, but how they are about it. “Sarah’s Key” is an exercise in collective guilt and how acts of pure evil stain us all, even generations down the line.

The two performances by the female leads help, of course. I thought Melusine Mayance hit the perfect balance of childlike wonder and very adult horror during Sarah’s experiences. Scott Thomas was her usual pitch-perfect self. And I really was endeared by the character of the farmer who refuses to help Sarah, but is won over by his own conscience. He seems almost sad about doing the right thing.

Austin: I always do that! The conversation is right there on boobies and I bring in cinematic philosophy. People are surprised that I’m single at the moment.

There’s something we can definitely agree about. Melusine Mayance was absolutely brilliant. If there is an Oscar that can be given just for performance through the eyes, she’s the lock. They were always so wide as she was drowning in powerful emotions of guilt, fear, and determination to fix an impossible mess. She is what really sold the past segments. Kristen Scott Thomas is one of those actors who instantly brings authority to a role. Journalists are always romanticized in films — and they should be! — but she always makes her story feel like important work even if I didn’t necessarily believe it.

This is probably from my years of being part of a mystery book club, but there were questionable points during her journalistic journey. Too many coincidences bugged me. Early on in the movie, a relative basically guesses that Thomas is pregnant and then she turns out to be right. It was the most random way to start a storyline. Also, the way she finally figures out what happened to Sarah’s brother involved a lot of stalling so it could be in sync with the other storyline. I want them to line up, but I don’t want it to happen because phone calls weren’t returned or people were keeping a secret for a lame reason.

There are films I don’t like and films I hate. I do not hate this whatsoever. There are strong moments and weak moments. The reason I’m not shouting at you (via Caps Lock) in disagreement is because this is a film that will completely work for people, and that’s respectable. I only hate films when they are condescending to the audience and “Sarah’s Key” never does that; it just slips a bunch of times.

Once again, I can not stress this enough: I am not pro-Nazi.