Peppermint Soda (Cert 12)
2 Discs DVD/Blu-ray Combo (Distributor: BFI) Running Time: 101 minutes approx.
If there is one thing that is universal it is our experiences at school. Whether you loved it or hated it, everyone can relate to the trials and tribulations of being in education. Yet it is a little peculiar that a forty-year old French film set in the 1960’s about two sisters at a strict all-girls’ school can resonate with this British male viewer.
Covering one year in the lives of two Jewish sisters 13 year-old Anne (Eléonore Klarwein) and 15 year-old Frederique (Odile Michel), the story begins in the summer of 1963 as the siblings leave their father (Michel Puterflam) after spending the holidays at the beach with him, to return to Paris where they live with their mother (Anouk Ferjac).
Anne is joining the same school as Frederique, a strict all girls academy, but they spend more time apart than together as the older sister is busy with her “grown-up” life, while their mother remains over protective of her youngest daughter. But Anne is growing up herself, if only her mother and sister would realise this.
This incredibly assured debut from actress turned writer-director Diane Kurys is more an episodic series of snapshots of the Weber sisters’ lives than a structured story but the flow remains coherent. As a coming-of-age story Kurys eschews laying out the key events as a checklist to gain sympathy for sisters, allowing the action play out and evolve naturally instead.
It also provides nostalgia for those growing up in the same era, the only difference being the politics of the time. I don’t know how many 15 year-olds in 1963 Britain had any keen interest in social issues but it becomes a salient point of interest for Frederique, not in the least through a prevalent fascist/anti-Semitism movement in Paris.
Otherwise the kids are about rock n’ roll (I never expected to hear Cliff Richard and The Shadows be exalted in a French film), dating and breaking the rules. Frederique has an older boyfriend whose secret raunchy love letters Anne steams open for a sneaky read, this being her gateway to all things prurient. When she tries to impress her schoolmates about sex, her information is wildly inaccurate and misleading, especially about aroused males measuring up to two metres long!
Most of the setting is at school where the teachers are portrayed as vicious caricatures yet totally believable. The gym teacher (Dora Doll) is an old biddy who wears a fur coat when outside; the maths teacher (Dominique Lavanant) is an ineffective wimp unable to control the class; the art teacher (Denise Péron) is a spiteful old hag prone to humiliating the less talented artists; and the lone male teacher (Jacques Rispal) is the small balding chap you wouldn’t have near your kids.
Kurys approaches much of the school based antics with a slight satirical tone, recalling the rebellious attitude of Lindsey Anderson’s if…. but with more restraint. The furthest she gets to crossing the line, aside from the ludicrous gym teacher, is the scene in which the maths class all don sunglasses and suck on ice lollies in unison to taunt their milquetoast teacher, without recourse naturally.
Elsewhere the usual ups and downs of school life are detailed – friends breaking up, new bonds formed, skiving off, detentions, failing grades – but it is the borderline despotic treatment by the teachers that alarms the most. We should know better than to condone rudeness and unruly behaviour but these unpleasant educators invite such rebellious feelings in the pupils and in the audience too.
Away from school and Anne is missing her older sister, trying her best to be part of her life again but finds herself pushed to the outside. Anne’s attempts at helping out during a crisis or simply being noticed often backfires; Frederique is naturally oblivious to this, yet is quick to pull rank as the older sister when necessary, partly for Anne’s own good, partly because she can.
We get the impression that Frederique isn’t deliberately shunning Anne but the two year age gap is a significant one as a teen. When Anne hits puberty the only she can tell is her mother who is delighted but still won’t buy her little girl stockings for she is still too young. Meanwhile Frederique gets to drink in cafes, go on holiday with her boyfriend and enjoy more freedoms – two years makes all the difference.
The most poignant scene doesn’t directly involve the sisters at all – during one of Frederique’s classes, a girl relates her heartfelt personal experiences of a recent politically related incident in Paris that saw many people killed. The moment her story ends, the bell rings and everyone rushes off, as if the girl hadn’t said a word.
And this is essentially is the very gist of the story – nobody cares about other people’s problems as they have their own to deal with, but it is not a message that Kurys bludgeons us with, choosing to subtly let it weave in and out of each scene while we are distracted by the surface activities. This is achieved by the excellent cast of mostly unknowns in their debut roles, some who enjoyed further success, some who didn’t, all around the same age as their characters.
Top honours go to Eléonore Klarwein, whose essaying of Anne is naturally charming yet impossibly astute for the 14 year-old debutante she was then. Odile Michel also slips very comfortably in her role as Frederique, capturing the spirit of awkward adolescence where 15 year-olds think being “nearly 16” is god enough to play the adult.
Perhaps the greatest praise Peppermint Soda deserves is in Kurys proving to have discovered her own voice in this debut, making a film that doesn’t resemble or reference anyone else. I hope this sparkling, newly remastered BFI HD transfer introduces a whole new audience to this wonderfully enigmatic, relatable and achingly honest film.
Interview With Diane Kurys
Rating – ****
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