Peppermint Soda (Diabolo Menthe) is more than just a typical coming of age film, it’s a film that highlights the vicissitudes of life for a young girl—first loves, first period, first pair of pantyhose (well, maybe not that last one). But it is also a movie rife with important historical context.
Director Diane Kurys beautifully captures this emotional time of adolescence while also addressing a turbulent political dichotomy in France. Peppermint Soda is an intimate account of the bond between women; sisters, friends and the mother. Yet the French director doesn’t consider herself a “feminist director,” she is simply a director who recounts stories that she is familiar with — and her debut film, is quite autobiographical.
Released in 1977 it quickly became a cult classic and won the prestigious Louis Delluc Film award. Although it takes places in the early 1960’s around 1962-1963, this film is a timeless classic, while also bringing the French back to a moment of deep nostalgia, the schools segregated by gender, dancing to the twist, drinking peppermint sodas which became an even more popular pastime after the song “Diabolo Menthe” (Peppermint Soda) by popular French chanteur Yves Simon, who did the soundtrack for the film.
The film takes place in Paris, France over a whole school year, following the lives of two teenage sisters— Anne (12) and her older sister Frédérique (15) who live with their recently divorced Mother, while their father lives in a suburb 2 hours away. The sisters go to a high school called Lycee de Jules Ferry–the same school that Kurys attended.
Kurys does a remarkable job at conveying intimacy in relationships between the two sisters, their mother as well as friendships—all these relationships evolving throughout the film. Using close-ups and mis-en-scene she captures tenderness—whether it’s Anne and her friends holding hands, Frédérique and her mother cuddling in bed, and even when there’s distance, such as moments when Frédérique and Anne are simply studying in the same room. It’s these same directorial traits that help her so subtly capture the lack of privacy that comes with being in a family. Often, the doors are left ajar while Anne lingers outside it always listening in to conversations she’s too young for or do not concern her.
Peppermint Soda is imbued with the type of embarrassing experiences that are consistencies in everyone’s adolescence—Anne’s friend Sylvie is always coming up with elaborate delusional answers to sex myths (she claims that guys usually have dicks at least as 6 feet long). In a comical manner, she highlights how naive the girls are. There are other markers of the experience of being that age—the ridiculous gym teacher, the sadist art teacher, the craven math teacher, as well as the impatient anticipation that Anne and her friends have to get their period to become “women.”
Each sister goes through their own emotional evolution. Frédérique begins school with much more confidence than her younger sister. She’s older and has a stable set of friends as well as a long-distance boyfriend, she falls in and out of love for the first time and develops a passion for politics, which separates her from close friends. Yet in this decision to become political she gains new friends.
In the first school scene, every girl is excited to be reunited, they all wear their tan trench coat, as they line up, the shot moves into a birds-eye view, and we see that there is one girl left behind. The girl stands out alone in the courtyard, not wearing her uniform, she is unprepared for school, just as the school wasn’t prepared for her. She tells the headmistress she is from Algeria. There are many moments in which Kurys subtly highlight how at the time the older generation, was still steadfast on Gaullisme, they wanted to forget the past and bi-partisan issues, they believed in a “unified” France that would forget about past transgressions both of WWII and the Algerian War. Yet Kurys manages to address all of this in her film in an immaculate manner. The political unrest is both hidden in plain sight and directly addressed. It was a time of repression and silence of bittersweet acquiescence. But luckily the youth always revolt.
There is a quick scene, when the girls walk by the school, in black graffiti there is an “OAS-SS” on the walls. At first I noticed this but thought perhaps there is no significance, but of course, everything is significant in a French film. OAS stands for Organisation Armee Secrete (Secret Army Organization) which was a right-wing organization in France that would perform several terrorist attacks against Algerians, in order to prevent their independence. The most telling scene in the film is when Frédérique’s history teacher asks the students how they will vote, most girls answer in jokes, that they will vote for their favorite pop stars or like their husbands. One student Pascale sighs in disbelief, she reminds everyone about the events of the Charrone March, her teacher asks her to tell everyone about it. In a monologue, Pascale describes the horrifying events of the night in her own witness testimony. Rather than stating facts she tells her story about how this peaceful march held by Algerians to stop the attacks by the OAS quickly turned violent, the police murdered 9 people and seriously injured over 200 people. In this scene, Kurys proves the significance of storytelling. There is always a perspective to share, to continue to tell because forgetting or repressing what is all around will make people repeat the same mistakes.
As turbulent as adolescence is in itself, what truly marks this film as a cult classic for anyone and especially for the French, is how deeply it can be archived in their collective memory. The choice to set the scene during this time of political unrest is a divisive one, and although there are many parts of the film filled with sweet naive moments of youth, there is a constant undercurrent of unrest. The fragile state of puberty parallels the precarious state that France was in at the time. It is no wonder that Diane Kury ’s debut film instantly became a success when it premiered in 1977. In this way, events like Charrone will always be remembered and retold.
Peppermint Soda is now showing at the Quad.