Reviews

'Sarah's Key': A Million Times Worse

Renée Scolaro Mora

Sarah's Key stops short of saying outright that past is prologue, focusing instead on the importance of remembering and retelling our histories.


Sarah's Key (Elle s'appelait Sarah)

Director: Gilles Pacquet-Brenner
Cast: Kristin Scott Thomas, Mélusine Mayance, Aiden Quinn, Niels Arestrup, Frédéric Pierrot
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Hugo Productions
Year: 2011
US date: 2011-07-22 (Limited release)
UK date: 2011-08-05 (General release)
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Trailer

The opening scene of Sarah's Key is dreamy and bright. It is 16 July 1942 in Paris and 10-year-old Sarah Starzynski (Mélusine Mayance) and her younger brother, Michel (Paul Mercier), giggle and play hide and seek in the white sheets on their bed. Their innocent game quickly gives way to one with dire consequences: French authorities, emptying the Marais neighborhood of Jews in cooperation with German officials, arrive to arrest the Starzynski family and move them to the Vélodrome d'Hiver, a nearby stadium. In an effort to protect Michel, Sarah hides him in a closet and locks the door, making him promise to stay quiet until she comes back for him. Of course, she can't know they aren't coming back, that they and 13,000 other Jews will be held for days in the miserable conditions of the Vel d'Hiv, awaiting eventual transport to Auschwitz.

Based on Tatiana de Rosnay's 2008 novel, Sarah's story is revealed in flashback, intercut with an investigation conducted by Julia (Kristin Scott Thomas), a present-day journalist working on a magazine piece about the Vel d'Hiv Roundup. Julia soon finds herself tracking down what happened to the Starzynski children, a project that has far-reaching implications for her and her own family.

The film's presentation of Sarah's time in the Vel d'Hiv with her parents and then at the interim camp, where she is separated from them, is beyond gut-wrenching. Her attempts to escape the camp at Beaune-de-Rolande and return home to save her brother are framed by our awareness of her uncanny intelligence (indicated when she first hides Michel in the closet) as well as her naïvete. When she arrives at the stadium, she's confused but still sure that they will be going home soon. The desperation of all the adults around her quickly brings the reality of the situation into focus and all childishness, except the hope of rescuing her brother, drains away.

Julia's story is different: she knows at least a little of how bad the Holocaust has been. After solving the mystery of Sarah and Michel, she then launches a new investigation into the fate of post-war Sarah (Charlotte Poutrel). The contrast between the two Sarahs is extreme, unsubtly reminding us that war is hell. Sarah as an adult is little more than a ghost. Julia's research frames images of Sarah silently staring out windows and over oceans: her later life is tragic, the film suggests, because she's merely surviving rather than actually living.

Living involves knowing, in Sarah's Key, and knowing has consequences. These are weirdly drawn out along gender lines. Julia is willing to pay a high personal price for the truth, while an odd collection of fathers is bent on hiding the truth about Sarah. Some of these men mean to protect themselves or their families, and some to protect Sarah. Those who knew her firsthand bury the evidence of her lock boxes, admitting they "don't want to know" or that they are afraid to ask. Whatever the motive, the result is the same: Sarah remains locked away, a sort of repetition of her hiding Michel.

Besides being the driving force in discovering Sarah's story, Julia serves as both the conscience of the film and the mediator between the past and present. It is clear Julia is distressed when an elderly woman who had lived across the street from the Vel d'Hiv tells her she knew what was going on there, but said and did nothing in response: "What could we do anyway?", she asks. But when a young coworker rants about those who stood by, Julia has her own question: "How do you know what you would have done?" Whether she can muster as much understanding when she finds out her own connection to the Marais neighborhood is another question.

As Julia ponders the past, the connection between Sarah's Key and current tensions about immigration is clear. It is not merely anti-Semitism that fuels those French shown jeering as their Jewish neighbors are hauled away, but nationalism and the anxiety over huge influxes of refugees. When warned they might be the next victims of the Nazis, one of them yells back, "We're French. It won't happen to us."

Julia also brings the horror of Vel d'Hiv into a discomforting proximity to Hurricane Katrina, when she describes what she's found in this way: "Think: the Superdome, but a million times worse." She notes, too, the irony that the Ministry of the Interior now stands at the site where the Vel d'Hiv once stood -- a reference to then Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy's 2006 roundup of hundreds of illegal immigrants into a makeshift refugee camp in gym in Cachan.

Sarah's Key stops short of saying outright that past is prologue, focusing instead on the importance of remembering and retelling our histories. Julia is warned at the start of her research, "When you start looking into this, you don't come out unscathed." But she comes away thinking that, regardless of the painful consequences of learning the truth, not knowing is not an option.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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