Tuesday, July 19, 2011

SARAH'S KEY brings Kristin Scott Thomas -- and some new or unheralded talent to the screen; Q&A's w/director, actress & writer

You've heard me say it before: Please -- no more Holocaust movies! What else can we see, feel and learn from any of these? Then one comes along like SARAH'S KEY, and all bets are off. From the best-selling novel by Tatiana de Rosnay (a Q&A with this writer appears below), adapted (with Serge Joncour) by the film's director Gilles Paquet-Brenner (Q&A with the director also appears below), the cinema version is everything you could want in an arthouse/mainstream movie. It's history and mystery, a story of love, sacrifice and death, a childhood mistake that haunts the grieving adult, and a search for meaning and identity that drives its characters -- and us -- breathless, to the finish line.

One thing that makes this film different from so many other Holocaust movies is its French setting.  We're more used to seeing the Nazis at work, and for years many Americans, when they thought of France during WWII, it was the French Resistance that first came to mind. Now that we know that every second Frenchman (and woman) were not part of that Resistance, and as more and more tales of French collaboration and anti-Semitism have surfaced -- such as the round-up in the film (shown above) of the Jews into the Winter Velodrome (called the Vel' d'Hiv') by the French police, rather than by their Nazi overlords -- we are perhaps more ready now for what Ms de Rosnay's tale explores.

The film moves fluidly and often back and forth between now and then -- 2009 and 1942 (and onward) -- hooking us into its story with vigor and immediacy. The director, M. Paquet-Brenner (at right), is a young man with only several small genre films to his credit and yet he has risen to this occasion remarkably well. While I can imagine other direc-tors providing more "style" and their own "stamp" to the proceed-ings, I cannot imagine anyone else doing an overall better job of telling this enormous story so well -- and in a swift and economical 102 minutes.

Also, and very welcome, is the fact that atrocities -- blood, gore, death -- are kept to a minimum. Yet due to the film's pacing, editing and masterly writing and acting, its effect is as awful and very nearly as deep as any other in this genre that you might mention. Real estate figures into this film in a way that we don't see all that often in Holocaust movies, and once this connection is revealed, it is handled precisely and with just the right understanding and care.

All you need know of the story is that it involves an American journalist in Paris, Kristin Scott Thomas (above), married to a Frenchman (the pair have a teenage daughter), who, in her investigation into the Vel' d'Hiv' incident, comes upon information that slowly begins to obsess her, leading to further revelations and some immense changes in her present, as she delves further into the past.

As the journalist, Scott Thomas does her usual first-class job, and because her role and her character's life are nearly as important to the film as that of the titular Sarah, she becomes so much more than merely the passive investigator. She shares the screen and the theme with Sarah -- the latter played as a child and as an adult by two remarkable actresses: Mélusine Mayance (above, who played that wonderful older sister in Ozon's Ricky) as the younger version, and newcomer Charlotte Poutrel (below) as the older.

Ms Mayance is simply extraordinary, handling every moment fully and believably -- and this includes one or two that border on unbelievable. Yet so strongly does this young actress come across that we embrace even these. Ms Poutrel (a short Q&A with the actress appears below), on the other hand, must carry on her graceful shoulders the weight of what has happened to Sarah -- and she must do this without any dialog. Thanks to her immense beauty and her sense of quiet resignation, she manages this fully, allowing us to accept what happens as not simply believable but inevitable.

Also in the large and French/starry cast are Niels Arestrup (above, with Ms Mayance) whom you'll recall from A Prophet, Dominique Frot and Frédéric Pierrot; each does a fine job, as always. Late in the proceedings, Aidan Quinn puts in a brief but pivotal appearance. When the film is over and you think back, however, everything seems pivotal. So skilled has been the filmmaker is giving each moment and event its proper due in terms of time spent, as well as acting, writing and editing, that there is not an "off" scene in the entire movie. While moving back and forth between time periods, the film also speeds inexorably ahead, carrying us along as plot and theme gather momentum, coalesce, then leave us utterly spent. It's been awhile since I've seen an audience at a press screening this moved.

Sarah's Key opens Friday, July 22, in New York at the Paris Theater and the Angelika Film Center, as well as in other select cities. You can find a theater near you, we hope, by clicking here, typing in your zip code under TICKETS AND SHOWTIMES, and then clicking on each of the three movie-ticket suppliers. That's a lot of work, I know. A simple listing of where the film is playing across the country-- and when -- would be preferable.

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Tatiana De Rosnay (pictured below) the author of the novel on which the film is based, has had a most successful career (you can read about it here). In person, she is an elegant, well-spoken woman in her middle years, who is making this public relations tour on behalf of the film because she believes so strongly in its fidelity to her original work.  Below, TrustMovies appears in boldface and Ms De Rosnay in standard type….

I read that you are pleased with the movie version..

I am. I would not have come all the way from Pairs to do publicity fort his film and for Gilles, the director, who has done such a fine job.

Often I don’t read anything about a new before seeing it: I just sit down and let it wash over me. This film grabbed from the first moment, and I stayed with from that point on. Its direction was phenomenally on-target, I think -- as much as or more than any film I have seen for a long time.

Yes, and the director is very very young, too. 

Is this the first time you’ve seen your work filmed?

Yes: This is the first adaptation, and it has been such an extraordinary emotional adventure.  I had been meeting with Gilles and listening to his ideas about the project and about my book, and I’ve been included in the whole thing since the very beginning. What has been most important is the trust between us all. 

This is unusual, I think.

Yes. There has been a real collaboration between Serge (the co-writer) and Gilles and my novel. I also happen to know the French producer, so it was almost like I felt safe with them all, from the beginning. I felt that they would not betray Sarah. And when I was told that Kristin Scott Thomas was going to play the journalist, I was bowled over.

I was also very impressed with Mélusine Mayance, who plays Sarah. She came up to me that first day, and said, “I think you know who I am. I’m your Sarah.” Meeting her, seeing her incredible talent, it was amazing.  

As I was watching I thought this was based upon a memoir.  But it was not.  It was completely imagined. 

Yes, I have a lot of imagination!

What amazed me is the amount of life, and characters, and past and present that your book and the film encompass without belaboring anything.  Sure, we might want more about certain things – the child to come, and why the man does not want it.

There’s more about that in the book….

Of course, but what Gilles has put in to the film seems to give this subject just the right amount of time.

I think he did the right thing, choosing the cuts that he did.

There is not a scene in the movie that does not work.

I agree, I agree!

This is fairly amazing for a relatively new filmmaker, and one who has worked in only genre films so far.

Yes, and I think it is also because all these actors are very talented. Michel Duchaussoy -- all of them: Nils, Dominique, everyone in the movie does his best…. Oh -- one thing I want to ask you: Were you not impressed with the music in the movie?  I just found it so powerful and so fitting for the film. Max Richter was the composer, and I think he did an amazing job. But so far not one journalist I have spoken with has mentioned the music.  Maybe this is not important to American journalists?

No, I think we care about the music. (At this point, I rifle through my notes on the film.) But I didn’t take a note about it.  

Perhaps it was so “right” that it just worked without calling attention to itself. 

Perhaps. I do have a couple more questions, though. I am assuming that your novel was translated into French, since you wrote it in English…?

Yes, it was.

Did you do the translation?

No, I never translate my own work.

Really?  Why?  How does that work?

Well, my French publisher happens to be here, so I will let her explain,

(The publisher speaks up) When Tatiana wrote the novel she wrote in English, not in French. She thought it in English, as well. She could have written it in French but instead she chose to write it in English, not in French. She chose one language over the other – if that makes sense to you?

Yes, it does. Did you read the French translation, and were you pleased with it?

Of course, I had to proof it!

So you approved, then.

Yes, but it is very difficult for me to judge the translation. It’s tricky. But this is part of my life, being both French and English. C’est la vie!

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 A few minutes later we meet with the young and very beautiful actress who plays the older Sarah in the film: Charlotte Poutrel (shown below). Composed and quite lovely, Charlotte is feeling chilly (it’s hot outside, and the hotel air-conditioning is on full blast), so we find her a wrap, and then sit down for a short chat.  Below, TrustMovies appears in boldface, and Charlotte in standard type:

You’ve been an actress for two years?

Yes, two years.  I was at University, studying communications and doing research. But I was very fond of cinema. I had to earn money by doing little jobs, to afford my apartment in Paris, so I began to be a model -- just for fun, and to have money for travel and living.

When I finished my degree, my agency said to me: Listen, you are not going to be young all your life, so if you want to be a model for one of two years to earn money, do it now.  So I did that. But modeling is sort of boring -- not boring exactly but you are not creating something.  So I said to myself, if you are so crazy about cinema, maybe you will be an actress. So, thanks to this money I had earned up until then, I could live for one year and try to pursue this.

That’s great!

Yes. I was not born into a cinema family. I did not do conservatory – how do you say…?

Like a drama school?

Yes, perhaps a drama school.

So, you did not do all that studying of acting that you would have done in a drama school?

No, but I knew some people in the industry.  And I tell them, Look I want to act, do a short film, and so on. I also have a blog on the intenet, where I can interact with people. And that is how I met Gilles, the director. He gave me tricks.

Tricks?

Yes... No... Like advice and suggestions. 

Ah!

And he told me about Sarah’s Key.  He said, I am sure you can play this role – not as a young girl, but later. 

And I really wanted this. It’s my chance, I thought! So I must do everything. So I read the screenplay, and then I read the book of  Sara’s Key  I learned a lot and I became very aware of things during the war, you know?  I did not know about Vel d’Hive.  Like many many people, I was not aware of what had happened.  I think French people…

The French didn’t talk much about that in the past. Things have only begun to come out about all this over the past decade or two…

I am not judging what happened. We who are not born in that time -- who knows what we might have done if we had been there, in that time? And so I had this role, and I shoot. And now…

Has anything happened for you since then?  Or has the film even opened in France yet?

Yes, last November.

Was it a success?

Yes, it was a success, but I think it might be more success here. Maybe because you Americans are more sensitive.

What?! More sensitive than the French?!

No – that it not what I want to say…  But you maybe would, I don’t know… (Ed's note:  I am thinking now, that Ms. Poutrel may have meant the word "sentimental"...)

Well, the movie is not unkind to France, but it is not particularly kind to France either. There may still be a lot of the French for whom this movie might be quite upsetting. For Americans, it is distanced enough that we’ll be able to look at it, and think, “Well, that is what those people did.” But I am still surprised that the movie was not a bigger success in France.

Well, it was successful -- for other people, but not for me… Well, I have little role in the film. And I don’t speak.

You don’t speak in the movie, at all?

No, I don’t speak. You didn’t see the movie?

Yes, I saw it, but I didn’t realize that you did not say one word!  Your performance was rich enough that it seemed as though you’d spoken.

So you did not realize it?  But I don’t speak.  Everything is inside me.

I was going to say that your role is less than than that of the young Sarah.  She controls most of the movie. But I really did not realize till now that we didn't hear one word from you.

For me that is a compliment! Everything was in the expression:  from my eyes, my head.

And your body, your body language. You still make quite an impression. How can it be that nothing has happened for you after a movie like this and a role like this?  That’s impossible!

Well, yes.  I am changing managers. It is really odd, you know. I don’t understand it, either.

Well. Also, you are a very beautiful young woman. Very.  So that’s bizarre. And you do speak English. If Marion Cotillard can make American movies, so can you. Maybe, as you say, if the film had been a huge hit, when that happens, actors and actresses that were in the film often get more work immediately.

Well, we will see.  Something may happen now.

The movie is being released in many countries, right?

Yes, and it was a big success in Holland, and in other countries.

When I saw it, people in the screening room were crying. I was crying. I had to sit there awhile afterward. I didn’t want to go out into the street like that. Too embarrassing.

It’s not realty a crying movie, you know. It’s really sober.

Right. But this is not the same way you cry in a soap opera.  It’s about much more than that.  It’s crying for bigger things.

Yes: the consequences of the war. The consequences of silence. Consequences of religions, of choice, of history.

That we are able to understand all this is due, I think, to the fact that your director did such a fabulous job. That was amazing. 

(We’re told by the PR person that time is up.) 

Well, Charlotte, I will hope to see you soon again – and on screen!

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Director Gilles Paquet-Brenner (below) is a dark and handsome young man who is these days filled with delight that so many American critics and journalists are enthusiastic about his film. We talk to him after speaking with both novelist Tatiana De Rosnay and actress Charlotte Poutrel.  Below, TrustMovies is in boldface, and Gilles is in standard type.

As everybody, I am sure, has told you – everyone I have spoken with, at least -- they've loved the film.

I think we have a good response here.

And it’s not like we haven’t seen, particularly when you’re as old as I am, like ten billion Holocaust movies. So to have one as well done as this –

And as different.

Yes -- it is different. Because it is set in France, not Germany.

And because of its time period.  It is set nowadays – more than half of the film is in the present.

We’ve also seen a lot of movies that go back and forth in time, but you handle this extremely well!

My next movie will do this, too, moving between 1984-85 and nowadays.  This is a great tool.

Yes, because themes and events can play off each other.

If you work often enough, you learn how this really is a great tool.

After I’d seen your film I went on the IMDB to check your resume.

And you thought, What is the point with all these movies -- right?!

Well, they all seemed like little genre films. And oddly enough, just a few months before this, I had been baby sitting my grandkids, and we were channel surfing, and all of a sudden I recognized Mischa Barton and Cameron Bright, and so I stopped and we watched for awhile. This was Walled In, but my grandkids were two and five, and so after a few minutes, my five-year-old grand-daughter --

No, it’s not for that age children! (Gilles laughs)

--she says to me, Grandpa, we are not allowed to see movies like this (at this point, the film was getting a little scary), so I said OK, sure—and we turned it off.  But even in those few minutes, you could sure recognize talent behind the camera!

Well, Walled In is my movie, but also, it is not my movie. I did not have final cut, and my version of the movie is quite different.

Well, my question to you is: How did a guy with these kinds of movies behind him get to do --  and then to succeed so well – with something as classy as Sarah’s Key? And I mean no disrespect here.  It’s just very different and such an interesting situation. Does that make sense?

Oh, yes. I understand the question. And it is true. In France, I am a kind of mystery: How did this happen?  Well, this is what I believe: Making movies is great fun. But why should we make the same kind of movie over and over again?  There is no point to that. Plus, I started making movies when I was very young. My first one, Pretty Things, with Marion Cotillard started shooting when I was only 25. So I kind of get off on making movies. And it was fun. I wanted to make an action movie, with helicopters and all that. And then I said, Well, I am going to do this very slow-paced thriller, on the Riviera.  And then, I am going to do a horror movie with Mischa Barton – something so far away from my compass. But then after Walled In, or maybe even before that, but at some point around then, you say to yourself, Well…  You know, it’s like when you have a lot of girlfriends, but then you decide…

That it’s time to settle down?

Exactly!

(We laugh.) So, movie-wise, Sarah’s Key is your settling-down period?! 

My settling-down period.

One of the reasons that I think this is an outstanding film is that every scene, every moment works.  It’s real and vitial. Not just real and boring, like some movies….

Well, I have a huge respect for the audience. If people are going to pay $12 to see a film, I need to make everything real and necessary. I don’t want the audience to be bored. So I put as much as possible into every scene.  Of course, there are things that are more important and others that are less important, and you must decide that. It is like, you build a house, and you don’t want to have a bad brick in your house. 

No. Or a bad room!  Well, movie-wise, you have done an almost perfect house.  I was talking to Charlotte Poutrel earlier, and I had assumed that this movie was a huge success in France, but she said, no.

It was a success, but not super-big.

Particularly for Charlotte. I thought she was wonderful.

Me, too.

What is the matter with French filmmakers, that they did not jump at the chance to use her?

I don’t know. 

Even though the young Sarah is maybe 80 % of the movie, Charlotte makes a great transition to the adult. 

Yes, and she is real.  The movie could have been a huge letdown when we move to the older Sarah, but it is not. She did a great job, and this was her first movie.

I would have also assumed that after this, she would have had producers an directors pleading for her to do more roles, but she told me nothing had happened.

I think things will change for her.

They have to. She is so beautiful!

Yes, and very charismatic.

Was Sarah’s Key considered a mainstream movie? Or an arthouse film?

That is a very interesting question. This is what I think, and it is what I love to do: When you have an “auteur” movie but make it for a wide audience. You would say in English that it is an Author’s movie, but for a wide audience.

We might say that this is for an arthouse/mainstream audience.  In America, at least,

Yes, but not in France, I think. And I am really fine with that, because that is exactly what I want to do. Like Black Swan or The Social Network.

At one point in your film, I thought – this reminds me of the most recent Claude Lelouch movie, Ces amours-là. Both films encompass a wide range of events, time frame and characters.  Though the styles are quite different.

I have not seen that yet.

Oh, you should. I think it’s his best film ever. And like his, your film is just so rich – you could have made a four or five hour movie. But you managed to condense everything that need to be there and given each thing its proper amount of time. 

You don’t have to be long with things – just sharp. Although I do like Gone With the Wind – that big melodrama!  

Considering that the latest Transformers is nearly 2-1/2 hours, and your film is only 105 minutes, this is amazing. 

I just don’t understand all these super-hero movies. For me a great popcorn movie is no longer than one hour 45.  But with these long super-hero movies, you have a headache from the noise and the length.

I think it’s great that you went from Walled In to something like this.

Yes, and my next film will be called Dark Places -- a title I love --  and it is a thriller, and it is going to be very different, too. 

Who’s in it?

We are only casting the film now. It was a great experience making this movie, and an even greater experience sharing it with people who love it.  It seems like more than just a movie for me.  It has truly taken a place in my life.

I thought it was a memoir-based, rather than a novel.

Yes, because it as been so very well researched and documented. 

(Time is up, so we must close.) Thank you so much Gilles, and we will watch for Dark Places in… what? One year?

Maybe one year and a half!

4 comments:

Genine said...

Thanks for posting screenshots of the movie? Are there anymore? I would love to see.

James van Maanen, said...

There sure ARE more shots, Genine. Check out www.IMDB.com and type in Sarah's Key. Once the page comes up, scroll down toward the bottom of the page to the headline Explore More About Sarh's Key. Under this section you will find External Links and under that, Photographs. Click on the photographs link to find a dozen different sources for photos. Enjoy!

Unknown said...

I have not seen Sarah's Key, but your review reminds me of a similarly themed movie. Emotional Intelligence. Susan Sarandon is the lead actor. A movie set in Canada. I would love to hear your take on it. Obviously, it moved me.
treborb

James van Maanen, said...

Hey, treborb--
Thank you for the comment. I had never heard of Emotional Intelligence, as you called it, and when I went on the IMDB, I found nothing but a barely-mentioned documentary under that title. But when I checked under Susan Sarandon's profile, I did find a Canadian film called Emotional Arithmetic -- which is the one I suspect you mean. Turns out it was never released theatrically here in the USA and instead went straight to DVD, under the dreadful title of Autumn Hearts: A New Beginning (yuuch! No wonder this movie is little known.) Fortunately, Netflix has it (via DVD and streaming), so as soon as I have some free time in my to-watch schedule, I'll take a look at the movie and post on it. (Its cast alone -- Sarandon, Gabriel Byrne, Max Von Sydow, Christopher Plummer and Roy Dupuis -- should make it worth a view.) Thanks for the suggestion.