Nothing is accidental in a film as keenly observed as Diane Kurys’ “Peppermint Soda” (now streaming on the Criterion Channel), but the opening title song seems a particularly important choice. She uses Cliff Richard’s “Living Doll,” and not only to set the picture’s early-1960s scene. The orchestration does that; the lyrics do more.
Got myself a cryin’, talkin’, sleepin’, walkin’, livin’ doll
Got to do my best to please her just ’cause she’s a livin’ doll
Got a roamin’ eye and that is why she satisfies my soul
Got the one and only walkin’, talkin’, livin’ doll
Take a look at her hair, it’s real
If you don’t believe what I say, just feel
I’m gonna lock her up in a trunk so no big hunk
Can steal her away from me
This way of seeing women – not as a person, but as an accessory, and as property – was not unique to popular music among the arts, or unique to the arts among the world in general. And the films of the French New Wave were no exception. With, of course, a few noteworthy exceptions, many of those revolutionary, game-changing pictures featured women who comprised the “girl” portion of Godard’s (perhaps apocryphal) quote about what you need to make a movie – and little else.
Yet in the 1970s, a handful of important voices emerged, with films that presented French women as more than living dolls, crafting these characters with depth and richness previously unseen. Kurys was one of those voices; “Peppermint Soda” was her debut film, released in 1977, drawing heavily on her own teenage years. Her unique voice and perspective are immediately present. Charting a school year after a summer at the seaside, a sequence of students merely hanging out and catching up on the first day of school is striking for its offhand naturalism—Kurys (and cinematographer Philippe Rousselot) beautifully capture the way these young women talk, interact, and react.
Much of the film is rooted in that sense of observation, organized as a series of loose vignettes dramatizing the lives of its two protagonists, but it is mostly about moments and dynamics: the lies we tell our friends, especially about sex; the blunt dynamics of the classroom and the hallways; the cruelty of students, and even worse, their teachers (“You’re a waste of good paper,” an art teacher sneers at an underperforming student).
At the center of the story are two sisters, Anne (Eléonore Klarwein) and Frédérique (Odile Michel). Anne is in the eighth grade, and “Peppermint Soda” might be most impressive in its ability to invoke the particular melancholy of that specific age (decades later, “Eighth Grade” would come close). Anne is basically a good kid, but the chaos of her life and the hands-off approach of her single mom has her leaning into her rebellious instincts—she lies casually, her grades are in the toilet, she skips class at will, and she’s starting to fall in with undesirables. “Since when do you hang around in cafes?” Frederique demands, when she catches her screwing around. “Wearing stockings! Putting on airs!”
Kurys subtly shifts the focus, in the film’s second half, to fifteen-year-old Frederique, who shares some of Anne’s problems (she too is suffering from bad grades and low effort), with the added inconvenience of a little sister tagging along everywhere. She’s taking her first half-steps towards activism and political awareness, and towards romance; over their summer at Dad’s place on the seaside, she fell in something like love with a local boy. Now she longs and pines for him, but must hide the sweetness-strewn correspondences they share, and when her mother (Anouk Ferjac) finds them, she’s livid. “You’re too young to get letters like that,” she insists, and in an act of straight-up emotional terrorism, her mother makes her tear up the love letters.
It’s a scene so deeply felt, it feels like a dispatch from the front lines – this is a filmmaker who remembers, and captures, the devastation of a moment like that. She conveys, as few directors telling teen stories do, how high the stakes are; it feels like the honest-to-God end of the world. And then she goes a step further, letting the mother make her case. “First loves are all passion, but that’s not love,” she whispers. “I know from experience.” That last line is key. That kind of empathy is what makes Kurys’ storytelling so special. As sympathetic as she may be to her teen protagonists, and as easily as she may step into their buckled-up shoes, she also refuses to paint their mother as some cartoon villain. Later, when Anne is caught shoplifting, their mother ends up proclaiming, “My daughter is a thief” for all to hear. But it doesn’t seem like an attempt to shame her. It seems like an exhalation of frustration. She truly has no idea what to do anymore.
Kurys’ filmography is relatively light – she made a dozen more features in the four decades following this one (two of them, “Entre nous” and “Children of the Century,” are also on the Criterion Channel). But those she made are worth celebrating. Agnés Varda is so (rightfully) vaunted in the canon of French cinema that it’s easy for her to overshadow her contemporaries, but they’re there, ripe for discovery. And by the time “Peppermint Soda” comes to its heartrending conclusion, her explicit echo of the closing shot of “The 400 Blows” isn’t just pointed. It’s earned.
“Peppermint Soda” is now streaming on the Criterion Channel.