I found this tedious and maudlin until the final act got going. It got better from there, but not enough to save the movie overall. I can see how many people would get hit by it emotionally, but I just didn’t feel it, finding the character work too thin, the structure undermining to the overall effect, and the result more predictable than the movie seems to think it was. It’s handsome and well-acted, for sure, but I can’t help but see the manipulative gears of the film in full view.
It’s a dual narrative for about half the film as the eponymous Sarah, a young girl, navigates the terror of being a Jew in Paris in the 1942 purge of Jews. In a moment of panic, she locked her little brother in a hidden closet in her family’s apartment in an effort to save him from whatever fate was in store for them. The rest of the family, her and her parents, spend a few days in a stadium before getting shipped off to camps. Sarah eventually escapes and steadily makes her way back to Paris where she discovers her brother’s fate. Alongside this story is Julia in modern day Paris, writing an article for a periodical about the 1942 roundup and discovering that her husband’s family has a personal connection to the event through the apartment that she and her husband are inheriting from his grandmother. Needless to say, it’s the same apartment as Sarah’s.
Now, my problems with the first half of the film can really be distilled into two major things. The first is that Sarah and her family are really thinly drawn to the point that they are almost little more than just Jews in Paris. Sarah is defined by her dedication to get back to her little brother, and her parents don’t really seem to exist as real people. Since Sarah is the focus, it’s fine that she’s the only one with real characterization, but that characterization is still thin. That’s all she is, a vessel that wants to get back to the apartment. We don’t spend time with her beforehand to get to know her at all. She’s is no more than that one character trait.
The other major problem with this hour is how it moves from one storyline to the other. It’s completely artless and betrays an editor and director who don’t really know how to connect the stories other than through the basics of plot mechanics. The best example of the movie’s artlessness comes in a transfer from Julia to Sarah. Julia is sitting alone in a quiet place, and then there’s a hard cut to a loud outdoor scene in 1942 Paris. The scenes have nothing to do with each other. We’ve gone from Julia concerned about her family life to Sarah dealing with being cast out from her home and worrying for the health of her little brother with the flip of a switch. But, on top of that, the movie doesn’t feel the need to ease the transition. I was a bit flabbergasted that we didn’t get a slow auditory bleed from Julia’s scene to Sarah’s, letting the sound of the crowd slowly fill the soundtrack until the visual cut.
What does that matter? One might ask. It matters in making the film feel cohesive and whole. If you’re going to move between time periods in the film, you need to make them feel connected by more than just plot. There needs to be an emotional connection, and just jumping from one to the other is jarring. It feels like the cuts were there because they happened in the source book (I don’t know, I haven’t read it).
We see the conclusion of Sarah’s little quest at about the hour mark, and then the movie focuses more fully on Julia. It becomes her quest to find out the truth about the connection between her husband’s family’s apartment and Sarah, a conclusion that’s obvious enough, and an attempt to track down Sarah in the present day. This is fine and does ultimately serve a point, and it’s the point itself that I actually appreciated most in the film. Julia’s efforts to dig into the past end up opening a lot of wounds a lot of people didn’t even know they had. The effect on her husband’s family is dire. Sarah’s son had no idea of Sarah’s history until Julia showed up in the restaurant to talk to him about it. People get hurt by the process, and Sarah’s husband asks her if its worth it. I really liked where it went in this final act where exploring history was both painful and cathartic.
I really just wish the first half was better and more fully built. The history the movie mines is certainly painful, but I think it relies too heavily on the Holocaust without actually selling it, especially at the character level. The ultimate question the movie raises about digging into painful histories is well handled. I bet the book is better.