Just in case anyone would’ve been concerned that Diane Kurys may have become too mature in making her wise directorial debut “Peppermint Soda,” recalling when she was thrown into attending an all girls’ school at 13, she was quick to slip in a title card, mischievously teasing her real-life sister that she “still hasn’t returned my orange sweater,” while dedicating the film to her. It’s one moment of many in “Peppermint Soda” that makes it feel as if Kurys had never lost touch with her younger self, something you can still feel today as “Peppermint Soda” celebrates its 40th anniversary with a new restoration hitting American shores this month and the director, for whom “Peppermint Soda” was only just the start of a long, accomplished career, remains as spry as ever.
No doubt it would give Anne (Eléonore Klarwein), the young on-screen surrogate for Kurys, great comfort to know that everything would turn out for the best, yet without that assurance the restless young woman doesn’t know if she’ll survive just after reaching her teenage years in “Peppermint Soda,” feeling as if she’s abandoned after her parents recently separated and her 15-year-old sister Frédérique (Odile Michel) might as well be on another planet when their age difference separates them in school and by extension, social realms. While Frédérique can pass down old homework for Anne to copy to fool teachers who give the same assignments year after year, often showing as little interest in being at the school as the students, the younger Weber sister is largely left to fend for herself, irritated that her older sis doesn’t want to be seen at the same cafes as her in front of boys and that her mother is starting to bring new men into the house while she doesn’t know what to make of what either other girls at school or her own body is telling her about puberty.
As confusing as it all is for Anne, Klarwein shows a preternatural poise that makes it hard to look away no matter how rough things get for her, with the wheels turning in her head a source of constantly compelling drama, and though Kurys will often say her inexperience led her to simply channel what she saw herself at 13 without any cinematic augmentation, that surely is what makes her vision so distinctive, outfitting a classroom of girls with sunglasses to show the overwhelming fear they can strike in unison against their math teacher or using simple movements of the camera to express Anne’s emotions, whether it be dizzying disorientation or the distance of estrangement. Still, while refreshingly free of rose-colored glasses to look back at the past, “Peppermint Soda” taps into the excitement of the unknown at Anne’s age as much as the anxiety it inspires, watching its young heroine occasionally giggle at others who are older as if to know something that they don’t – and in fact, you know she does, yet wonder whether she can hold onto it as she gets older.
In recounting such a crucial year of her own life, “Peppermint Soda” also turned out to be a turning point for Kurys, who up until that point had been an actress and never returned to the other side of the camera following its success. Instead, she continued to make films in which others would play thinly veiled versions of her – or members of her family – and in doing so has created one of the most ambitious cinematic autobiographies over time. On the eve of “Peppermint Soda”’s re-release in Los Angeles, Kurys spoke to us from her home in France, where she is currently wrapping up production on her latest feature, and reflected on the continued vitality of her directorial debut, the implications of drawing inspiration from her own life to make her films, and why she didn’t mind being mean to a few of her former teachers in their depiction.
What’s it like to revisit this film 40 years on?
It’s funny because it was on television two weeks ago and it did an enormous score and I was so surprised. I wasn’t really sincerely surprised, but it did more than a million viewers on television on primetime [which was] very, very strange. But what can I say? I’m thrilled. You don’t feel the time. Because it’s a period movie, and because it’s a film about childhood adolescence, it seems that it doesn’t age too bad and it was my first, so it stays very vivid and very alive. I’m always surprised when I see the film still lives in the memory of people, at least here in France. It was a very, very, very big success and I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know how to shoot or how to edit and it’s maybe there’s something fragile about it. But I knew what I had in mind, so I just tried to get the help of my technicians to [convey that onscreen] and the same thing for the young actresses. There are miracles sometimes and I guess it’s a little bit like a miracle.
Was there anything you didn’t plan for that you ended up really liking about it?
When a film is special, all the faults become the quality. [laughs] What I thought was a flaw becomes art. For instance, we didn’t have the money to go to the ski resort or by the beach to do the little pieces of the holiday [you see with Anne and her family]. So we took photographs and it feels like it was planned like that, but it’s just because we didn’t have the money to do it. And of course, it’s a lot better with photographs because at that time, memory is basically photographs. So sometimes everything comes into place and you don’t know why and you don’t know how. The unexpected became the quality of the film. There’s a lot of things I don’t like – [where now] I go, “Ah, I should’ve done that better.” But I was blessed with the discovery of the young girl [Eléonore Klarwein] because she makes the film, really.
You were coming to this from an acting background yourself. Did that inform how you worked with Eléonore?
I felt for her. She was 13. Her father was a painter and she was coming from a bit of a Bohemian world, so she was not completely shy about the camera. Because I was an actress, I know what it feels to be on the other side, so I tried to make her feel not conscious of the camera and to make her feel loved and at ease with her lines. My first thing [with the actors] was just to be close to them and to reassure them, to make them confident. But she had an inner talent, something very, very special about her. She was very beautiful and very mysterious at the same time.
And you had so many young girls to watch over. What was it like presiding over an entire school’s worth of teenagers?
Yeah, I’m still surprised that I managed the whole thing with not only the technicians, but the cast – all these girls. I really wanted to do this movie – I had it in me. All my years at school, I remember I kept thinking one day —I didn’t believe I would make a film or I would even write a book about it — but one day this story has to be told, so I wrote very vividly. [The script] came easily, but I’m still surprised to this day how I managed. I had a good crew and I had a lot of energy and it was a very happy time because the school was [closed] for us, for three weeks in the summer, so we could do anything we wanted. It was exhilarating for me, as well as the young girls, to be able to open up the doors. Everything’s so big at that time, even when I made the film, which was not that far away from the time of my childhood. And everybody was very happy to do the movie. Very often when you make a first film, all the technicians love to make a first film. They like to discover you, they like to help you.
You show empathy for both the young girls and the adults, whether it’s a few of the teachers or Anne and Frederique’s parents. At the time, was it easy to relate to both?
The sympathy comes, I guess, from the actors who are interpreting the teachers. I didn’t have much sympathy for our teachers in real life because the teachers we had in that kind of high school were pretty tough. Not all of them, but I didn’t have great memories of my years in school and I try not to really mock them, but to show what I remembered. I actually have friends now who used to be in school with me and they still to this day remember the teachers and their names, their horrible attitudes. The math teacher [in the film] is more vulnerable than the others, so we care a little bit for her. She’s just unable to teach. It’s not cruel like the [art] teacher, who’s really a horrible person – and she existed. She really did. But when I write, I try to identify with each of the characters I describe because when you write, you just take on their lives – you’re the person, so the empathy comes naturally.
One of my favorite moments in the film is when Frédérique is experiencing a traumatic moment in her room and the camera does a long, disorienting spin outside the room to find Anne, listening in – how did you figure out the camera movement as an expression of the characters?
Well, I had written the scene where Anne was just listening at night, just watching through a bit of the open door and if I remember, Philippe Rousselot, the cameraman who was also the DP, told me, “Why don’t we do this?” Because I have the feeling that I wanted to hide [Anne] behind the door and it would’ve been really boring if we would’ve gone from her face to maybe Frédérique still inside. So it’s not my idea, it was his. We were the same age and he [became] one of the most famous directors of photography in the world. He worked mostly in America, and he was very good and very young and we were both learning from one another.
What was it like showing this film to your sister?
When you write an autobiographical piece, movies or books, they see that what you wrote is the truth because once it’s on the screen, it’s for real. It’s true, whether you invent things or not and in a film like [“Peppermint Soda”], of course I invented a lot of things. For instance, the story of the orange sweater with my sister never existed. And my sister was absolutely sure there was an orange sweater that she didn’t give back and I completely made it up! I made it up! But in a way, I think she realized I was a very unhappy child and she wrote me a little note after she saw the movie. The note was actually written from a checkbook because she didn’t have any paper at the time that she wrote it, but she wrote, “Forgive me a million times for what I did to you,” and she signed the check. She left it off at my hotel room because I was presenting the film in Lyon and she was living nearby. She was very touched by the movie. And my mother and my father, who were still alive at the time, were more proud than anything else. They didn’t expect me to become anything, so they were proud.
Did this film help you figure out what you wanted to do as a filmmaker?
I thought I’m going to carry on on the same track. This film was very autobiographical and I kept doing the same type of films, telling stories that are close to me, whether it’s “Entre Nous,” which is the story of my parents, or “C’est La Vie,” which is about the divorce of my parents during the holidays. I knew my inspiration would come from myself, my own life, my own experience, whether it’s love or growing up. I just finished one and it’s going to be released in France in December — and I hope it’ll be released in the States. It’s going to be [my] 14th film, with Fanny Ardant, and it’s called “My Mother is Crazy” It’s about a roadtrip between a mother and a son. And I have a son, so guess what? [laughs]