From Nightmare to Tragedy

‘POINT BLANK’ & ‘SARAH’S KEY’

It was the end of August and, marooned in the silver-screen doldrums, I went to see what the French were up to. Beaucoup, as it turns out.

Point Blank, a crime thriller directed by Fred Cavayé, takes up that hoary suspense trope, the innocent man accused of a crime. You wouldn’t think anyone could do this fresh, but you’d be wrong. Timing is everything in a suspense movie like this one; both the major revelations that drive the plot and the individual scenes that flesh it out must be conducted as carefully as a symphony. Point Blank doesn’t miss a beat. The film hits the ground running, literally—the first scene slams us with the sudden appearance of a badly injured man in desperate flight from two pursuers—and never stops. Well, it does slow down, for one carefully calibrated moment. Immediately after that initial, frenetic chase scene, Cavayé hits the pause button to introduce us to a young couple, Nadia and Samuel, at home in their living room, canoodling in marital bliss following an obstetrical appointment and an ultrasound showing the beating heart of their soon-to-be-born infant. Nadia’s doctor has informed her she is prematurely dilated and must stay off her feet. Her uxorious husband eagerly pitches in, ready to wait on her hand and foot. “You need rest,” he gently coaxes.

Pas encore! We don’t know exactly what these two paired sets of characters will have to do with one another, but it certainly won’t be restful. In short order, Samuel’s peaceable humdrum life cracks open like an egg. A hospital orderly, he has the bad luck to be working the hospital ward where the man we saw in the opening sequence—now semicomatose—is being kept. The two men who wanted him dead are still at it; and when Samuel spies one of them, disguised as a doctor, trying to cut the patient’s lifeline, he chases the man off—and quickly finds himself dragged into a nightmare beyond imagining. The next day, intruders smash into his house, beat him up, and kidnap his wife. Soon a telephone call informs him that if he doesn’t get the mystery patient out of the hospital and hand him over, his wife will die.

Point Blank features sadistic hit men, Corsican Mafiosi, and some of the skankiest looking police detectives you’ll ever see. Fit creatures, all of them, for a moral climate that grows murkier with each new and shocking betrayal, as Samuel launches into a terrified and desperate attempt to save his pregnant wife. Usually a movie scenario based on such blatant dichotomies of marital safety and criminal brutality feels like a crude exploitation; few things are more offensive in movies than the prospect of a pregnant woman being terrorized. Yet somehow Cavayé gets away with it. His film is too well made and too fast; you don’t have time to be offended. Point Blank is a perfect suspense machine, its tension pitched so high, and sustained so deftly, that watching becomes aerobic. This is the most propulsive cinematic experience I’ve enjoyed in a long time. Take a deep breath before it starts. You may not breathe again for the next eighty-four minutes.

To move from Point Blank to Sarah’s Key is to go from a breathless nightmare you can’t stop watching to a slow-paced tragedy—so agonizing in places—you can hardly bear to look. That, at any rate, was my mortified response to Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s treatment of another well-trodden cinematic theme, the Holocaust and the rounding up of the Jews.

Set in Paris, Sarah’s Key takes the tiny aftershocks of seismic events six decades old and follows them back to their source—the notorious July 1942, Vél d’Hiv raid, when French police, carrying out the orders of their Nazi bosses, rounded up thirteen thousand Jews and kept them for days in a crowded, fetid arena, the Vélodrome d’Hiver, before sending them to holding camps and ultimately to Auschwitz. In the foreground is the Starzynski family, whom we meet huddled in their flat as gendarmes bang at the door. Panicked, and overhearing that boys and men are to be singled out, the family’s daughter, ten-year-old Sarah (Mélusine Mayance, in a gripping performance), impulsively locks her younger brother in a hidden closet, giving him a pitcher of water and—believing she’ll be back within a day—promising to come get him. Little can she know how hard it will be to keep her promise.

The other, contemporary half of the drama follows the effort of Julia (Kristin Scott Thomas), a fortyish French-American journalist working for an American magazine in the Paris of 2002, to write a sixtieth-anniversary article about Vél d’Hiv. Her French in-laws are busy renovating a family apartment for her and her husband, in the section of the city known as Le Marais. Le Marais, Julia learns, was formerly a Jewish neighborhood, and the apartment has been in the family’s possession—she discovers further—since 1942. Can you connect the dots? The rest of the film follows Julia’s dogged attempt to find the dark place where her family’s story and that of Sarah Starcynski converge.

In the process, we confront a by-now familiar Holocaust tableau of panic and disbelief among the victims and, among the perpetrators and bystanders, cold villainy offset by sporadic acts of kindness—significantly, an elderly French couple’s decision to take Sarah in after she escapes and bring her back to Paris to find her brother. Much of this isn’t particularly persuasive, and a list of this film’s flaws would be long, starting with the signal coincidence of Julia’s family being implicated in the very historical episode she’s investigating for her magazine. There are scenes at the magazine in which Julia and her grizzled editor deliver History 101 lessons to two young colleagues whose ignorance of the basic facts of twentieth-century history defies credibility. And structurally, Sarah’s Key is a bit of a mess: the task of covering events on two continents (there’s a New York interlude) over half a century proves cumbersome, and the yoking of the front and back stories leans on a plot development—Julia’s unexpected pregnancy (she already has a teenaged daughter) and her fixation on having the baby despite her older husband’s opposition—that conduces to heavy-handed sentimentality.

Whether these problems matter to you depends on what sort of emotional investment you’re prepared to make—or unable not to—in a movie like this. “When I see these children,” Julia says while surveying archival photos of those lost in the Holocaust, “I can’t help thinking about my own daughter.” As the father of a little girl, I couldn’t help doing so either, especially when confronted by scenes of children ripped screaming from their mothers’ arms. Critics who have blasted this movie have vilified it for milking the Holocaust for easy, cheap emotion. Maybe. Yet surely one reason such grievous episodes tear our hearts out is the still-astonishing, never-less-than awful fact that they actually happened.

There are scenes of great beauty in this movie, as when Sarah and another girl escape from their rural detention camp and run toward the safety of woods through a field of shimmering wheat, their flight cutting two ribbons through the velvety sheen. In the woods they discover a pond and, tearing off their filthy clothes, plunge in; later we see them naked and pale, floating on the water like corpses, a moment of unbearable vulnerability. I can think of a number of other, better Holocaust-related films, from Au Revoir Les Enfants through Music Box and Europa Europa, that handle issues of family complicity and the awful fate of children with far more skill. But Sarah’s Key hurts; and what hurts most of all, what tears your heart out, is the prospect of a child clinging furiously to a key and a promise—as if, in the face of a calamity beyond reckoning, her obdurate faithfulness could make all the difference.

Published in the 2011-09-23 issue: 
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Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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