Friday, March 13, 2009

The best French language films – part 2: Peppermint Soda

Check out any parts of the series you may have
missed - part 1, part 3, part 4, and part 5

There are very few coming-of-age films quite as authentic as Diane Kurys' semi-autobiographical film, Peppermint Soda (Diabolo Menthe). The film is such a thorough examination of adolescence, it's hard to believe it is Kurys' directorial debut. Created in 1977, the humorous film was somewhat atypical for the times because it focused on a teenager's coming of age from a female point of view. The film presents themes found in many of Kurys' subsequent works that involve separation and divorce in a French-Jewish family. Her script is clever and when I first saw Peppermint Soda in my own adolescence I could find aspects of my own coming of age mirrored in the storyline. The film's best quality is its universal appeal. Granted, its historical events and characters are distinctly French, but if anyone in the audience has ever been a teenager - particularly a teenaged girl – somewhere that audience member will see themselves in one of the film's two central characters – thirteen year old Anne Weber (Eléonore Klarwein), and her fifteen year old sister, Frédérique (Odile Michel).

The events of Peppermint Soda unfold over an entire school year, and follows Anne, a sensitive but often sly French schoolgirl, who confronts the challenges of growing up in 1960s Paris. For Anne, life is an awkward misery. In her first year as a teenager her grades are terrible, she despises her divorced mother's boyfriend, she has no idea how to talk to boys her age, or how to relate to her pushy and extroverted older sister, Frédérique. Frédérique is the opposite of her younger sibling. She has a boyfriend, Martine (Valérie Stano) who sends her love letters – letters which unbeknownst to her are read by a curious, but jealous Anne. Frédérique also gets interested in politics, particularly the war in Algeria. Naturally the two sisters fight.

Eléonore Klarwein

The most impressive aspect of this delightful film is Kurys' memory of what it means to be young. She possesses a remarkable ability to make the more common-place and easily forgotten events of a young girl's life seem monumental – how if feels for a younger sibling to be pushed around by the older tyrant, a mother who refuses to allow stockings or rides on the school bus, uncomfortable holidays with a father in Deauville, a first period, and the first year at Lycée Jules Ferry (the same all-girls school Kurys' attended) with each teacher more loathsome than the next. Kury's can also show moments of seriousness and sometimes, pain. Frédérique's love for politics drives her best friend, Perrine (Coralie Clément) away, ending their childhood friendship, the Kennedy assasination is part of the historical backdrop, and Fédérique's political student group is attacked by neo-Nazis.

Though I first saw Peppermint Soda over ten years ago, I always remember it fondly. It was the first French film I ever saw. The film can be sporadic at times, with some events being crammed in here and there, it is still a wonderful film and I highly recommend it – especially to anyone who wants an introduction into French cinema. It seems impossible to get Peppermint Soda on DVD, and there aren't even any clips available to upload from youtube, but there are used copies available at Amazon to purchase.

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