"SARAH'S KEY" is a competent, slightly chilly drama referencing a shameful period in French wartime history.

It's told through the fictionalized story of a French family renovating its Paris apartment and uncovering its unsavory past.

One of the owners (Kristin Scott Thomas) is a journalist who begins to suspect the apartment was wrested from Jewish owners who were unlawfully tossed out half a century ago, as so many were before being shipped to concentration camps.

She investigates the history of the building and of the dispossessed family, whose harrowing story is told in parallel flashbacks by director Gilles Paquet-Brenner.

"Sarah's Key" (adapted from the Tatiana De Rosney book) becomes a little lopsided as the flashback story dominates the viewer's engagement. The title character is a young Jewish girl (Melusine Mayance) separated from her family, escaping her camp and returning to Paris with the hopes of finding a living relative.

There is not much suspense in how this episode will end, but there is a suffocating feeling of horror, because we sense that director Paquet-Brenner (who lost ancestors in World War II), fully intends this story element to reflect the grim reality of the Holocaust.

This invokes the larger arguments about the relationships between Holocaust fiction and history - there are those who say fiction should stay completely away, but the pull of the subject is simply too strong, and will always attract artists like De Rosney and Paquet-Brenner.

And the movie is not strictly a look back. It's specifically about the complex, fraught relationship between present and past - about the draw and the dangers of mixing the two.

We see this in the relentless investigation by Scott-Thomas' character, one that disturbs the family peace, and in her equally disruptive efforts to contact Sarah's survivors.

There is meant to be great emotional resonance in the ways these modern stories play out, but there is a remote, rigidly solemn feel to the movie's final third.

A vaguely similar story was given more irreverent treatment in Liev Schreiber's "Everything Is Illuminated," the story of a New Yorker who tries to find his family's tragic past in Russia. Schreiber kept the past off camera, and risked making its characters more human by making them funny.

It was a minor movie, but it lingers in the mind (the sunflowers, the subtle points in the epilogue about a surviving diaspora). I wonder if the serious-minded "Sarah's Key" will do the same.