Key to the past: Gilles Paquet-Brenner uncovers a shameful episode in WWII France

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Based on the international best-seller by Tatiana de Rosnay, Sarah’s Key stars Kristin Scott Thomas as an American journalist in Paris whose research for an article on the infamous 1942 Vel’ d’Hiv roundup of Jews in Occupied Paris leads to an unsettling personal connection. The drama adroitly moves back and forth between the present and past, tracing the saga of ten-year-old Sarah (Mélusine Mayance) and her determination to rescue her younger brother, who was hidden in a locked cupboard when her family was removed from their home. Film Journal International met in Paris with the drama’s engaging 36-year-old director, Gilles Paquet-Brenner, who shared his eagerness for the film to reach as wide an audience as possible. The Weinstein Company opens the film in select U.S. markets on July 22.

Film Journal International: What inspired you to make this film, which is quite different from your previous work?

Gilles Paquet-Brenner: I read the book and it completely fascinated me and moved me. I wanted to make a movie that was a bit more serious. And because of my family’s history, I could identify with this story. I’m of Jewish descent, and certain members of my family died in the camps. My grandfather was a German Jew who came to France to marry my grandmother, who was French. He was turned in to the authorities by French people. In teaching this history, we tend to put all the responsibility on Germany—and justifiably so, when we’re talking about Nazis. But we forget that at that time, anti-Semitism was everywhere in Europe, including France. So this story provided an opportunity to show a more nuanced picture of what happened, to show the grey areas.

Moreover, the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup [in which French Jews were arrested in 1942 and kept in Paris’ "Winter Velodrome" bicycling racetrack and stadium before being shipped to concentration camps] had never been portrayed for a wide viewership—this was before The Round Up [a 2010 French film by Rose Bosch] was made. I realized that people who knew about the event did not know the details or what really happened.

And of course, Sarah’s Key is a great story. I’m a filmmaker, I’m not just there to recount history. It was good to have a gripping story. And part of the story takes place in the present, with Julia’s investigation of what happened back in the early ’40s. I thought that was a good way to make the themes of World War II and the Holocaust accessible to younger generations who feel far from that period in history.

FJI: With your film, The Round Up and Ismael Ferroukhi’s upcoming Free Men, there seems to be a resurgence of French films about the experience of France’s Jews during World War II. Why do you think that is?
GP: There’ve been lots of French books and documentaries on the subject, obviously. But major French movies about the Holocaust have been few and far between. There was Louis Malle’s Au revoir les enfants and Mr. Klein by Joseph Losey. And now, there are fewer and fewer living survivors and witnesses of these events. Those people want to talk about it, before it’s too late.

I also think there’s a geopolitical context in France and around the world that incites people to want to talk about things like World War II and what happened to the Jews. When Sarah’s Key came out in France, the government’s expulsion of the Roma communities from their camps in France was all over the news here. Obviously you can’t compare the Holocaust with what President Sarkozy did to the Roma—that would be absurd. But I think there’s a receptiveness and timeliness to films about the Holocaust even today, because there are still these tensions between different communities. It’s a reality in France.

Americans always ask about anti-Semitism in France, because they see things on TV, and obviously it’s highly exaggerated. No, there’s not widespread or virulent anti-Semitism in France. On the other hand, I would say that there are certain people who use a very complex geopolitical situation to simplify things and manipulate people. I don’t want to say more than that; you can read between the lines.

FJI: Why did you choose an English actress, Kristin Scott Thomas, to play a New Yorker?
GP: In the book, the character is an American who has lived in France for 25 years, who’s married to a Frenchman and is raising a child in France. That’s Kristin’s story. Kristin’s been in Paris for 25 years. She was married to a Frenchman, she has French children. So she was instantly believable as this woman, and I knew that French people would buy her in the role. If I were to have cast an American actress, even if she had studied French for several months before shooting, it wouldn’t have been as credible.

Kristin worked hard on her American accent. She had a coach on the set because she wanted to be as believable as possible in the eyes of American viewers. There was only one other actress who could have played the role and that’s Jodie Foster [who speaks fluent French]. But Kristin had just been in I’ve Loved You So Long, and the French loved her in that role. For a long time, she was seen as a sort of cold actress, but that film completely changed her image.

Kristin is such an elegant, nuanced actress, and that keeps Sarah’s Key from edging toward sentimentality. With subject matter like this, children being arrested and deported, you need to be really careful. People don’t want to feel like they’re being manipulated when they’re watching it.

FJI: And how did you end up choosing Aidan Quinn, who we see pretty rarely on American screens and even more rarely on French screens?
GP: The French remember him from Legends of the Fall. We were looking for an American actor and we had a casting director in New York. So we had a list of actors. The problem was that while it’s a crucial role, it only required three days of shooting, and we didn’t have a lot of money because we were on a French budget. So you try to offer a role like that to certain actors and you don’t even get past their managers. But we got lucky because the casting director knew Aidan’s manager. So I didn’t even have to ask. One day, they told me, “Aidan’s reading the script.”

I thought he fit the role. He has a kind of gentleness and good-naturedness, and something in his eyes and his gaze that was reminiscent of the young actress who plays Sarah [his mother] as a child, Mélusine Mayance. Aidan read the script and one week later he was on a plane to Paris to start shooting.

FJI: The film is much more straightforward stylistically than your previous films Les jolies choses and UV. Why did you pare down your visual approach?
GP: I’m a director whose camera is usually very present. But a director’s job is to be at the service of the story. And when you have a story that’s heavy and emotionally charged, you need to know how to disappear behind the camera and not lay it on too thick.

I wanted to prove to myself that I could make a good classical, accessible film, the kind of film I would see with my father when I was young. And I wanted the movie to be sober, so I strove to make it sober. That doesn’t mean I didn’t work on the visual aspect. The different eras are shot in different ways, with a fluid camera, long shots, and an economical style for the contemporary sequences, to reflect a more stable era compared to 1942. 1942 was a more chaotic time, so we used different lenses, more handheld camerawork, images we shot from the middle of the action. But nothing in the film is stylistically ostentatious.
Of course there are more cinematic moments, too, from time to time. When the two girls escape from the concentration camp, or when they go swimming, for example. But for those shots to really hit the viewer hard, there needed to be only a few of them.

FJI: How did you shoot the realistic-looking Vel’ d’Hiv scenes, given that Vel’ d’Hiv no longer exists?
GP: Joseph Losey’s Mr. Klein had scenes that took place in the Vel’ d’Hiv, too, and they used another velodrome that still exists near the Bois de Vincennes in Paris. It’s been there since the beginning of the 20th century. We used exterior shots of the structure, and then used special effects to create the interior. On top of that, we digitally multiplied all the extras, to increase the amount of people you see in these scenes. I’m pretty happy with the result.
As for the more artistic side, we talked to survivors to get a sense of what it was like. Our goal was to project the viewers directly into the reality of that experience. The survivors all talked about the noise, the smell, the dust. So we tried to capture that.

FJI: Your films have all been adaptations of other source material. Do you have any interest in writing your own screenplay in the future?
GP: I’m not sure I have that talent, actually. I think there’s something reassuring about falling in love with material and having something concrete to come back to during the shoot if you feel lost in the process. I’m not sure I have it in me to write a story from A to Z. There are a lot of people who could do that better than I can. On the other hand, I know how to condense material. I think I know what’s best in a story and how to keep what’s essential.

FJI: You’ve already made one film in the U.S., Walled In, with American actors. Any plans to make another?
GP: That experience was a total fiasco. I didn’t have final cut, and the producers took over and made it into something else. It’s not the worst film you’ll ever see in your life, it’s not totally shameful. But the final version is not what was written. It was with Mischa Barton, and she definitely gives one of her best performances. She’s a really good actress, contrary to what a lot of people think. And she gave a lot in this role, but the producers completely changed her character. It was a really bad experience.

I will, however, be shooting my next film in North America somewhere. It’s an adaptation of the novel Dark Places by Gillian Flynn.

FJI: How is making a movie in America different from making a movie in France?
GP: For French directors, it’s very important to have control over the final cut of the film. As a foreign director in America, unless you’ve made a huge hit over there, which I haven’t, you don’t have that power. So the best situation for a French director making a movie in America is to still have it be a French production and not have American money involved. Once American producers are involved, they’ll have the final cut. I’m not criticizing, but it is a cultural difference.

France is actually the only country in the world where directors are protected from that. We’re very lucky here in that way. But with Walled In, the American producers and I did not agree on how to handle the film and they did what they wanted with it. There was no way to fight it, it was very frustrating. I don’t ever want to go through that again.

When a foreign director makes a movie in America, there’s politics involved. If an American studio is doing the film, you need to adapt and understand that you’re making the movie on their turf. You can’t think you’re going to revolutionize things over there, that’s not the way it works. You need to consider yourself a guest and try to understand how things function within the studio system. Then it becomes easier. I didn’t understand any of that going into Walled In. I think I didn’t have the right approach and state of mind.

Aside from that, I think American actors are a bit more professional than French actors in the way they work. Especially with young French actors who are already a little bit famous, they don’t always know their lines by heart, sometimes they’re a bit cavalier. That’s not something you see in America. At least I didn’t.

FJI: You directed Marion Cotillard in one of her first big roles [Les jolies choses]. Now she’s obviously a star on both sides of the Atlantic. How was that collaboration?
GP: Marion was already known from the Taxi movies. But her role in my movie was the first time she was taken seriously as an actress. She was nominated for a César award for Most Promising Actress for that role. Given the career she’s had since then, it’s hard to imagine a time when she wasn’t taken seriously. But it’s true.

When I worked with her, Marion was extremely professional, very serious about her work. We got along extremely well and are still friends to this day.

FJI: Which directors inspire you?
GP: I’m not sure inspire is the right word, because I really try to make my own movies and not copy anyone else. That said, among all the directors I love, the two who rise above the rest are Stanley Kubrick and Sergio Leone. After those two, there’s Ridley Scott, Quentin Tarantino, and some from the newer generation I think are great, like David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, Paul Thomas Anderson, David Russell. I thought The Fighter was magnificent. I also really like Paul Verhoeven.

As for French directors, I grew up watching Luc Besson’s films. I think since then, he’s gotten a bit lost. But I love what he did in the ’80s and early ’90s. I also like classic French cinema. Renoir, for example.

I’m less interested in directors than in specific movies these days. I realize now that every director has ups and downs and makes both good films and films that are not as good.