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SARAH'S KEY

Interview With Gilles Paquet-Brenner
What made you want to adapt Tatiana de Rosnay's novel, ‘Sarah's Key', for the screen?

The idea came to me three months before the release of UV, which I was apprehensive about. I wanted to go back to dealing with more serious issues and that's when I came across Tatiana de Rosnay's book. I was dazzled by its captivating plot, and the way the story also explores the gray areas which few films deal with, such as the attitude of the regular people during the Roundup. Also, it resonated with my own family history. I'm of Jewish origin and the men in my family were victims of that period. My grandfather, a German Jewish musician who had settled in France, was denounced by some French people and died shortly after being sent to the camps. I pay tribute to him through the character of the violinist who has a ring containing poison so he alone can decide when he dies. My mother told me that story for the first time while I was in pre-production for the film. Certain things resurfaced. Obviously I wasn't around when my grandfather was deported, but I saw how it had affected my grandmother and my mother and her sisters. The book brought that back to me – the living who have to learn to live with the dead.

In the adaptation that you co-wrote with Serge Joncour, did you make any major changes to the story?

We stayed pretty faithful to it, except for one essential aspect. In the book, Sarah's little brother spontaneously goes to hide in the closet when the police arrive to arrest them. In the movie, Sarah tells him to hide in there, which alters her character and her sense of guilt. The other major change consisted in remedying something which frustrated many readers, myself included, who regretted that the book kind of drops Sarah after her brother is found. For the screen, Serge and I developed the character of Sarah as an adult. The adaptation wasn't very difficult because the book is so superbly structured.

Why did you choose Kristen Scott Thomas to play Julia Jarmond?

In real life, Kristin is uncannily similar to the character of Julia Jarmond. It actually scared her a little bit because she'd never played someone that is so much like her. I'VE LOVED YOU SO LONG created a strong, durable bond between Kristin and French audiences. We sent her the script, but we didn't get an answer right away because she was in a play on Broadway. The US presidential elections were approaching, and I wanted to be there. I met Kristin on the day of Obama's election victory. Carried along by her desire to tell this story, and maybe by the euphoria that swept the city, she said "yes.” Kristin's commitment was fundamental in financing terms, but also in terms of all that she brought to this movie. In SARAH'S KEY we see her as she is in real life – a charismatic, modern woman of her time. Her restrained performance and natural class steer the film clear of the trap of sentimentality. As she says herself, in this movie she is the audience's conscience.

How did you find Mélusine Mayance to play Sarah as a little girl?

I firmly believe that children become more resilient and grow up faster in wartime, so I guess I was looking for the future adult as much as the child. When I saw François Ozon's RICKY I knew I wanted to work with Mélusine. She was made for this movie. She amazed everyone because she knows exactly what she is trying to convey, has a kind of sixth sense about where the camera is, and always hit her mark without the slightest hesitation. As Ozon remarked: "Mélusine isn't a little girl, she's an actress.” For such a tricky role at such a young age, we were incredibly fortunate to have her.

It's also a nice surprise to see Aidan Quinn playing Sarah's son. How did you come up with his name?

Tatiana sometimes sums up her novel as the story of a man who finally discovers who his mother was. For the part of William, I was looking for an idea, a presence, charisma…He is crucial to the story because he gives meaning to Julia's quest. We looked long and hard for the right actor, and even though Kristen's name opened doors for us, most American agents politely ignored us when we explained we had only three days to shoot and almost no money. Then one day, a casting director called to say she was waiting on an answer from Aidan Quinn. It was a dream come true – an actor whose face movie fans will recognize but who would allow the character to exist with an incredibly powerful performance.

After assembling this talent, what was your artistic aim with the movie?

I wanted to make a movie which is accessible and mainstream, but also thought-provoking. Initially my principal concerns were how to distinguish between the two periods and how to achieve and maintain the necessary restraint for the story without losing creativity. I wanted to show the completely different worlds in which Sarah and Julia exist – the chaos of wartime and the Occupation contrasting with the relative comfort of Julia's lifestyle. I chose to film all of the 1942 action with a handheld camera and short lenses so we're always with the characters, close to the action, and then intercut with more lyrical scenes, such as the escape from Beaune-la-Rolande, to let the film breathe. For the present-day action, I opted for a very classical approach, paring down the scenes so that every close-up and every movement would have meaning. My aim was for the audience to be able the follow the story without being distracted by my directorial style. The story had to come first.

How did you approach the issue of the scene at the Winter Velodrome, the stadium where the Jews were held after the roundup?

I met with survivors whose recollections were always of the stifling heat, noise, smell and teeming crowds. We shot the scenes at the Jacques Anquetil velodrome in Vincennes which has preserved the same Eiffel-inspired steel structure that the Winter Velodrome had. I wanted audiences to get a sense of the vastness of the velodrome, but I was wary of digital effects which let you do whatever you want, sometimes at the expense of realism. In the end, there are only four shots with special effects in the whole sequence. Every shot in the velodrome is from Sarah's point of view. I felt a great sense of responsibility towards history with this scene. When I read Annette Muller's ‘La petite fille du Vel' d'Hiv', about her escape from the Winter Velodrome as a girl just a bit younger than Sarah, it really hit home that I was going to immortalize these events. Annette Muller and her brother Michel were beside me as we shot the scene where the children are separated from their mothers. To capture the unbearable barbarity of the scene I sent the cameraman into the crowd using a 14mm lense, even if it meant they bumped into him or jostled him. He took some knocks, but he captured the chaos as you see it on screen.

With SARAH'S KEY you became the first feature film director to shoot at the Holocaust Memorial in Paris. Yes, the Memorial had never figured in a feature film before. The man Julia meets there sums up his mission as "getting away from the figures and statistics to give a face and reality to each of these lives.” Those words define my underlying aim with this movie. I wanted audiences to feel in contact with the events, irrespective of their opinions or origins. Kristen's character is American and non-Jewish, so Sarah's story and the Holocaust is not her story, but indirectly it touches her. It could happen to anybody. I

n that light, what is your vision of the movie?

SARAH'S KEY is a work of fiction, but the novel I've adapted is extremely well-documented and res

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