Diane Kurys’s 1977 film Peppermint Soda shares its name (Diabolo menthe in the original French) with the bright green beverage that Anne Weber (Éléonore Klarwein) and her friends order when they visit a cafe one day after school. It’s an exciting outing, novel, rather grown-up — a couple of boys several years their seniors even wink and smile at them, much to their amusement — but Anne’s pleasure is cut short when her sister Frédérique (Odile Michel) enters and recognizes her voice. “What are you doing here?” Frédérique addresses her angrily, for all to hear. “Are you out of your little head? Go home immediately. Since when do you hang around in cafes? Wearing stockings! Putting on airs! Mom will be delighted.” Anne, humiliated, walks out just as the waiter returns with a tray of peppermint sodas. The adult world, or at least the world of older teenagers, remains elusive. She and her sister are only two years apart in age — Frédérique is fifteen, Anne thirteen — but sometimes that small gap seems like an abyss, an eternity.
The Weber girls, children of divorced parents, reside in Paris with their mother (Anouk Ferjac), who works in a clothing store; they see their father (Michel Puterflam) much less often, though he does take them on occasional trips to ski resorts or to the beach. In fact, Peppermint Soda is bookended by two such beach vacations, the first in 1963 and the second the following summer, with the vast majority of its scenes taking place during the intervening school year. Although the setting plays an important role (Kurys, born in 1948, was an adolescent in that period) — not just in the music and fashions on display, but also in references to the Kennedy assassination, the atomic bomb and the recent war between France and Algeria — there’s a timeless, universal quality to many of the sisters’ experiences, particularly for girls. Thanks to the film’s episodic structure, it manages to touch on everything from puberty to pranks to politics, from boys to bad grades, creating a detailed portrait of the world, or worlds, in which its two protagonists dwell.
Anne’s world, naturally enough, is narrower than her sister’s, more insular and confined, to her great frustration. She wants nothing more than to be grown up (or at least as grown up as Frédérique) and for the people around her — including, and probably above all, her peers — to see her that way. In order to achieve this, she frequently resorts to lying: stealing a photograph of her sister’s summer boyfriend (Darius Depoléon) and passing him off as her own, pretending that she’s suffering from menstrual cramps. She also tries persuasion, begging her mother to let her wear stockings, for example, or ride the bus by herself, but her pleas are all in vain. “Go to the complaints desk,” her mother quips; Anne is not amused. Lies and other forms of disobedience, like wearing the forbidden stockings in secret, become a means of asserting herself, of giving herself some measure of power and control. She recognizes her own essential powerlessness. When an art teacher (Denise Péron), after mocking Anne’s drawing in front of the entire class, proceeds to scrub off another girl’s makeup and then scrape away her nail polish with a pair of scissors, Anne’s friend Martine (Valérie Stano) wants to report the woman. “She’s nuts, a sadist,” Martine says, but Anne can see no point in speaking up. “They won’t believe us,” she insists.
Frédérique, at fifteen, has many of the privileges and other marks of relative maturity that Anne so craves. That doesn’t mean she’s an adult, by any means. Like Anne, she often gets into trouble with her mother — for coming home late from a party, for poor grades — and also like Anne, she sometimes employs lies and subterfuge, as when she has letters from Marc, the boy she met over the summer, sent to her friend Muriel’s (Marie-Véronique Maurin) address so that her mother won’t see them. (Her mother finds them anyway and is not happy to read that he wants to kiss and caress her daughter. “You’re too young to get letters like that,” she says.) Still, it’s clear that she has a wider awareness of the world than Anne does, growing wider all the time. In the course of the school year, she experiences the joy, the anguish and then the disillusionment of first love with Marc, she’s upset by Muriel’s sudden disappearance, and she shares an uncomfortable, emotionally confusing moment with Muriel’s widowed father (Robert Rimbaud). Besides all of this, she becomes politically active, joining an anti-fascist group — a move that leads to a fight between two factions of students, a three-day suspension and, most painfully for her, the break-up of her longstanding friendship with a girl named Perrine (Coralie Clément).
“Groups are always changing. One makes new friends,” says Pascale (Corinne Dacla), another classmate of Frédérique’s. “People change,” Frédérique replies. Relationships — with friends, parents, siblings, teachers, romantic interests and countless other categories — are complicated, and Peppermint Soda depicts them in all of their complexity, their fluctuations, their good and bad sides. Take the girls’ relationship with their father: Frédérique says that she wants to see him, and both sisters are distinctly unhappy when their mother’s boyfriend (Yves Rénier) joins the family on a picnic, yet when their father shows up unexpectedly one day to take his daughters out to lunch, their interactions with him are awkward, even a bit tense. Things are more open and intimate with their mother, with whom they spent much of their time. For all of their conflicts with her, their disagreements, the way her rules and restrictions on them chafe, they’re very close to her. Frédérique often sits with her on her bed, talking or listening to the radio, and the girls surprise her with a little birthday party at one point, all the more appreciated because she’s just received a distressing medical diagnosis. It’s obvious that a great deal of love underlies this mother-daughter bond, in both the pleasant moments and the less pleasant ones.
Then there’s the relationship between Frédérique and Anne. Something of it comes across in the dedication from Kurys that appears on a title card a few minutes into the film: “To my sister, who still hasn’t returned my orange sweater.” As with their mother, the girls’ relationship is rooted in love, but it’s neither idyllic nor idealized. Frédérique constantly looks out for her younger sister — asking if she’s okay on the first day of school, leaving a door open so that she can hear the radio after she’s been sent to bed, noticing when a man eyes her lecherously as she tries on clothing in his warehouse — but she also gets annoyed with her on a regular basis, like in the cafe scene, or when she’s forced to bring her along to a party. At the time of Muriel’s disappearance, Anne makes a prank phone call, a thoughtlessly cruel attempt to get attention and take part in the situation, from which her sister has excluded her; when Frédérique learns that Anne was behind it, she explodes, to the extent of physically attacking her. “I’ll never forgive her,” Frédérique vows while explaining what happened to Muriel’s father. “Of course you will,” he says — and he’s right. From his adult vantage point, he has a clearer, more detached view of Anne’s behavior better than her sister does. The girls are still learning to navigate the world, to understand even the people to whom they’re closest. It’s fitting that the school year ends with Frédérique performing in a play, because so much of adolescence entails playing different roles — whether that means lying outright, like Anne, or simply figuring out who one is and where one stands in relation to others at any given time.
In the final scene, the sisters are back at the beach, vacationing with their father. On the surface, not much has changed since the opening scene: Frédérique is with a boy (albeit a different boy this time around), while Anne is off by herself, a lonely little figure roaming along the shore. Perhaps nothing radical has changed, for all of their experiences throughout the past year. Anne walks toward the ocean, then stops and looks back, so that the film — save for a series of still photographs during the credits — concludes with her gazing into the camera. It strongly evokes the ending of François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959), a film to which Peppermint Soda has been compared: both focus on young adolescents dealing with school and family relationships, both are set in Paris in roughly the same time period, both contain autobiographical elements for their directors. However, unlike Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel, Anne isn’t fleeing a juvenile detention center. She has troubles of her own, to be sure, but as a faint smile emerges on her face, one gets the sense that even if confusion and uncertainty await her, she’s still looking forward to the future and whatever it holds.
The post is (an absurdly belated) part of the It’s a Young World Teen Movie Blogathon, hosted by Pop Culture Reverie and In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Click the banner above to see all of the other great posts.