Director: Diane Kurys
Screenplay: Diane Kurys, Alain Le Henry
Producers: Serge Laski
Starring: Eleonore Klarwein, Odile Michel, Anouk Ferjac
BBFC Certification: 12
Duration: 97 mins
Diane Kurys was not a director I’d heard of when I first sat down to watch Peppermint Soda, her debut film. While I’m always excited by the chance to discover new directors who work I can fall in love with, what really attracted me to this film was the fact that it was a coming-of-age story. I’ve always loved coming-of-age films, particularly those that focus on small occurrences that seem inconsequential when taken separately but build into a picture of great significance across a feature length runtime. Examples of this sort of episodically structured film include Federico Fellini’s I Vitelloni, Barry Levinson’s Diner and George Lucas’s American Graffiti, although there are less obvious qualifying films like Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me which purports to be about four boys going to find a dead body but is really an incisive and intimate character study and examination of youth that is merely dressed in the clothes of an adventure film.
One of the best films about childhood ever made is Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and it is this film to which Peppermint Soda owes an acknowledged debt, mimicking its famous last shot in its own closing moments. But Kurys film is a very different beast from Truffaut’s and this cine-literate wink to the audience felt to me like one of the very few false notes Peppermint Soda hits; an unnecessary doffing of the cap by a film that has forged its own distinct path. One way in which Peppermint Soda noticeably differs from all the films I’ve mentioned is its almost exclusive focus on female characters. The film is set in an all-girls high school, Lycee Jules-Ferry (which Kurys herself attended) in which the only male presence is a somewhat ineffectual and pompous caretaker. Very early in the film, Kurys fills the screen with young girls on the cusp of, or in the early stages of, adolescence in a superb sequence in which the first day of term is pre-empted by a throng of small reunions. Among these schoolgirls are our protagonists, the thirteen-year-old Anne and her sister Frederique, two years older and toying with sex and politics for the first time. The portrayal of the sisters is more realistic than usual all-out resentment that results from the tendencies of a less-subtle filmmakers. Anne and Frederique are close in and out of school but there are moments when Frederique coldly rejects Anne in favour of her new friends or when Anne commits acts of alarming childishness. These moments highlight what a large gap two years can be at this time of life.
Peppermint Soda begins with a looseness that beautifully mirrors life itself. There are numerous moments that have the potential to become lengthy storylines, such as the girls’ hatred of a sadistic art teacher, but Kurys allows them to only re-emerge when they become important again. Between art lessons, no mention is made of this thread and, like most of the plot strands and, indeed, the strands of real life, it does not have a definite ending. It is merely a distraction that seems centrally important only for the time in which it is directly affecting the characters. There’s too much more to think about as they progress with their days to allow it to become an overriding concern. This naturalistic depiction of fraught school days draws the viewer in quickly and deeply so that when Peppermint Soda does elegantly shift into a slightly tighter structure, it does so with unnoticeable grace. Kurys examines the differing experiences of Anne and Frederique in turn, with Anne dominating the film for a lengthy period and then dropping into the background as Frederique’s concerns take centre stage. Kurys script and direction are both deft in showing that while there are similarities in the issues affecting the girls’ lives, there are often cavernous differences in how they deal with them, with Anne’s desire for maturity giving way to acts of petulant childishness and Frederique’s juvenile high-handed adult act crumbling into actual moments of mature realisation.
Both Eleonore Klarewein as Anne and Odile Michel as Frederique completely convince in their roles, tapping into a similar sense of bewilderment but reacting with the differences you’d expect in girls of their respective ages. It’s easy to glimpse in Anne what Frederique might have been like two years earlier and in Frederique what Anne will become, albeit with the encumbrance of a younger sister to deal with. The actresses may be aided by being the same age as the characters they are portraying but the insight visible in their depictions betrays an impressive self-awareness without which their performances would not be anywhere near as moving. Crucially, they also convince completely as sisters as well as individuals, their relationship hanging over every scene even when the other is absent.
Peppermint Soda is also a document of a time and place, early 1960s France, and Kurys introduces elements of the political climate that affect the characters directly and indirectly. In Frederique’s case, a growing political concern and desire to battle fascism clashes with her mother’s wish that she avoid politics entirely and the school policy to leave politics at home, even though some of the teachers do not adhere to this rule themselves. Anne finds herself affected more obliquely, through the social changes political upheaval thrusts upon her. While Kurys’s film is certainly a more emotional work than it is a political one, she beautifully marries up the two as encapsulated in one short scene in which the announcement of Kennedy’s assassination provokes uncertain first reactions which are not elaborated one. Kurys instead cuts immediately to an exterior shot of torrential rain. We do not see the characters’ tears or even know if there were any shed but the skies themselves weep for the tragedy and it’s impossible to escape the influence of the skies under which we all live. This seemingly throwaway scene is, in retrospect, a decisive and influential moment, even if this fact goes unrecognised by those it influences.
Peppermint Soda is a film that is every bit as effervescent and refreshing as its titular beverage, albeit with the same power to make the unsuspecting drinker momentarily wince. That said, like the bright green soda the girls so regularly consume, it makes no attempt to hide its intentions and delivers exactly what it promises from those early moments at the school gates; a frank, funny, realistic and painfully real take on the lengthy, bewildering but often invigorating slide into adolescence. Kurys does her film a disservice by ending it with a blatant reference to someone else’s creation. By this point, any question of influence or fear of derivativeness has been emphatically overridden by the clear demonstration of a distinctive talent. I greatly look forward to seeing more Diane Kurys films.
Peppermint Soda is released by BFI on Dual Format DVD and Blu-Ray on 24 July 2017. Special features are as follows:
– Original theatrical trailer
– Interview with Diane Kurys (33 mins)
– Scrapbook: Diane Kurys explores her collection of photographs and production materials
-Illustrated booklet with film credits and new essays by Sophie Mayer and Michael Brooke