Review Date: 7-17-2011
Release Date: USA 7-22-2011
Runtime: 111 min.
Period: 1942 – 2011
Costume Designer: Eric Perron
I saw this film at LA’s Museum of Tolerance, in a screening followed by a Q & A with the director, and all I can say is WOW. Many of you may have already read the novel of the same name by Tatiana de Rosnay. The film is an adept adaptation of the novel, and it does not disappoint!!
For those of you who have not read the novel, but want to see the film, do not read past the jump, as there are major spoilers involved. Instead, take my word for it – the film is beautiful, and is appropriate for viewers 12 years old and up. The story is an important, though seldom discussed, part of French history, and it is a compelling story about family and compassion.
The story of the film (as with the book) is told in two different time periods. 1942, and ensuing years, and 2009-11.
In 1942, Parisian Jews were rounded up and carted off to the vélodrome, known as the Vel D’Hiv. Not by the Nazis, but by the French themselves. They were eventually taken to Auschwitz, where they perished. This is fact.
The book (and the movie) fictionalizes one girl’s story amid these events. 10-year-old Sarah Starzynski (Mélusine Mayance) is taken, with her mother and father to the Vel d’Hiv. When the police arrive to take them away, she hides her younger brother in a closet, and locks him in, keeping the key with her. He promises not to go out until she comes for him. In her youthful naïveté, she believes that they will return home to let him out.
As the truth dawns, she realizes that her brother is trapped in the closet, and someone needs to rescue him. The vélodrome is full of people, who are, by now, freaking out, committing suicide, getting desperate. Sarah and her parents are loaded into a truck and shipped off to a “transition camp” at Beaune-la-Rolande. She and her mother are soon separated from her father, and Sarah abruptly (and painfully) parts with her mother in an unforgettably heart-wrenching scene.
The children are all who remain at the camp at this point, and Sarah, with a friend, finds a way to escape. They run to a rural village, where they take shelter with a begrudging older couple, the DuFaures. Sarah’s friend succumbs to diptheria, and Sarah convinces the couple to take her to Paris to find her brother.
They get to Paris, and she runs into her old apartment (now occupied by non-Jewish tenants). She opens the closet door with her key and –
** SPOILER ALERT **
unfortunately finds the remains of her younger brother, who had kept his promise and waited for her to come and get him. Horrified, she returns to the countryside with the DuFaures, and grows up to be a strong and beautiful young woman, with an unmistakable distance and thousand-mile stare.
Meanwhile, in 2009, Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas) is an American magazine writer living and working in Paris with her husband Bertrand (Frédéric Pierrot). She is writing a piece on the anniversary of the Vel d’Hiv Roundup, and starts digging around for clues. She soon discovers that the apartment owned by her Bertrand and his family once belonged to a Jewish family (Sarah’s family, the Starzynski family) who were taken away in the Roundup.
It is through Julia’s research that we learn the rest of Sarah’s story. When she was grown, Sarah abruptly left the DuFaure family, moved to the US, got married and had a child, a boy named William (Aidan Quinn).
Julia herself is confronted with a late-in-life pregnancy… about which she is excited, but her husband, not so much. He asks her to terminate the pregnancy, and she can’t do it.
Julia tracks down Sarah’s family in New York, only to find that she died in a suspicious accident. She locates Sarah’s son in Italy, and he bristles with the suggestion that his mother was Jewish – she had never mentioned it to him.
In the end, the story neatly wraps up with William and Julia talking deep into the night in New York City. She tells him that though she left her husband and her life in Paris, things in New York are okay. And also that she named her daughter Sarah.
The movie really is separated into two pieces: the past and present day. All of the footage from the past is shot in beautiful golden tones. The hues are saturated, and the palette is strictly defined – earth tones, browns, gold, cream – it is a sepia soaked, romanticized memory palette for sure. The footage from present day, by contrast, is manmade – navy blue, grey, black, steel, white – the contrast is so stark, it made me wonder if they used different film stock for each section. I couldn’t tell if they shot it digitally or not, but if they used film, it looked like different film stock to me. The color, contrast, and “feel” of the two time periods was noticeably different.
The one thing that stood out, in terms of costume, was the use of the color red. Red, in this case, represented freedom.
In the Vel d’Hiv, when Sarah’s family first arrives, they meet a young woman who has a plan to break out and escape. She rips the Jewish star from her sweater and sweet talks her way out of the complex. She wears a white dress with red accents, red lipstick, and a red hat.
Later, we see Sarah, grown up and liberated from the idea that she would be killed for being who she is. We see her at the beach for the very first time ever, realizing (as she contemplates the infinity of the ocean) the endless possibilities of her life and her world – she wears a red plaid cardigan over a red turtleneck sweater, with a red ribbon in her hair.
When Sarah finally leaves her new family, the DuFaures, she wears a red, short-sleeved pullover sweater – a costume which is brought back later in a picture that her son William sees – representing her break from the past, and her freedom. She launches herself into a new life, into stark freedom, wearing red.
The film is lovingly designed; everyone looks appropriate and good here. There are scenes with a lot of background, people who go from looking good to looking torn up (in the same costume) and the transition is handled deftly. I am sure that they didn’t have a ton of money to spend on this (total budget of the film estimated at 10M Euros), so I am impressed with the authenticity and naturalness they were able to achieve.
I loved this movie, and it is definitely something you should put on your list for summer viewing. Bring a handkerchief, and be swept away. The costumes are beautiful in their own way, and I congratulate Eric Perron and his crew for their tremendous effort. Enjoy the film, and spread the word!!