Peppermint Soda, French writer-director Diane Kurys’s 1977 breakout film, is a pure delight. Drawn from the artist’s own life, the story follows thirteen-year-old Anne (Eléonore Klarwein) and her fifteen-year-old sister Frederique (Odile Michel), through the trials and tribulations of adolescence, including (but not limited to) first periods, bad grades, boy problems, and the potential scandal of wearing stockings. With its 1963 setting and cheerful color palette, Peppermint Soda avoids sentimentality and feels something like breezily paging through an old photo album. With all the recent conversation around women’s stories in cinema, the time is right to take a closer look at Kurys’s achievement of feminine autobiography, and viewers in New York will get a chance to do just that when a new restoration opens at Quad Cinema this week. I spoke with Kurys about her lovingly rendered depiction of the past.
NOTEBOOK: What was it was like revisiting your debut many years later? It seems like it would hold up, but I'm wondering what it's been like for you as a filmmaker.
DIANE KURYS: I was really surprised that forty years have passed. It was kind of a shock. I was happy to see it again, and had seen it a couple of times, I think, along the road. I was actually surprised to see how as a period movie and a movie about adolescence it doesn't age. In general I think that's true of period movies. They last longer than contemporary pictures. Contemporary films tend to get dated very fast.
NOTEBOOK: Was it challenging creating a vision of the past that was still within living memory?
KURYS: You will see when you grow old: you're the same person, you just get older. You're the same inside. The little girl is still in me. I wasn't completely inspired by how it was at the time. I might have had general memories in the process of making the picture, but it was more just a process of not knowing anything about anything. I learned so many things on the picture. I remember how fast I had to work and how I had to find my little Anne. The film was made so fast. It was unbelievable. I started looking for a producer after I got this grant from the government. I started to gather the producer and the cast and the set and the crew, and it was March or April when that started and the film was released that same year, in December. I was shooting in the summer and within seven months it was out. It's really very unique, I think.
NOTEBOOK: How did you go about capturing the aesthetic and fashions of the period?
KURYS: There was no art direction. The filmmaker has to do the art direction, in fact. The DP was very important in the process of the lighting and color of the movie, and the woman who was doing the wardrobe was my age and she knew exactly what I was talking about when I talked about the beige color of the school uniforms. She knew because she'd gone to the same kind of school. So it's just gathering the memories of that time to look at. At the time it was actually a lot more difficult to get everything. Today you have access to everything, every period of fashion; you just open your computer. At the time you had to go to the library, you had to go to do research and find magazines. It was very hard, in fact. I did that with the costume designer. We took scissors and old magazines and decided, “Okay, she's gonna wear this, she's gonna wear that,” and with the fashion you have to have a little bit of taste to say, “Okay, this is too much, this is going too far” or, “Let's exaggerate this.” I've done a lot of period movies. My first contemporary film was my sixth one. I was more inspired by the fashion in the older days. I think it's exciting to bring it back. It has changed a lot, but at the time it was pretty exciting. And it's always fun to find the right lamp, the right bag, the right pair of shoes. And now you can't find them anymore. Everything's been corrupted.
NOTEBOOK: You started as an actress. How was it going from acting to being on the other side of the camera?
KURYS: It was really a way out. As an actress you don't always have the roles you hope to have and you always have to wait for the next call. It's a very frustrating job. I needed to stretch myself. I needed to be at the front of the stage. I didn't want to be this unloved actress at the back. Out of frustration came my writing and my first attempt to write was this movie. It's easy when you are an actor to write dialogue that you can say and it's easier to understand what it means to be in front of the camera. In other words, you know how not to direct an actor. You know not to confuse them, and you know how to respect them. In a way it helped me a lot to write and to produce and to direct. I was an actor for eight years. I did television, and a lot of plays, and a little bit of cinema. So I knew what it was. I wasn't completely unaware of the process of making a movie. So it helped me.
NOTEBOOK: What was the casting process like for Anne? Eléonore Klarwein is so good, and she made her screen debut with this film. You said you made the film quickly, so it sounds like you didn't have much time to go through extensive auditions.
KURYS: We didn't have the time, and we didn't have time to rehearse or anything like that. It's easier when you know who you're looking for and it was easy—well, not easy but evident—because it was autobiographical. I was looking for my sister and myself; I was looking for my friend at school. It's not like little Anne looks like me, but there was something in her that I connected with. Actually, I saw a picture of her for a long time—a black-and-white picture that was on my desk—I don't know where I got it, from the casting director or somebody, and when I asked about her, they kept saying, “No, no, no. She's in Spain. She's not going to come back to Paris to meet you.” My desire was growing every day because I was frustrated not to be able to meet her. There was something so special about her in that picture. I was absolutely sure she was the one. So I cast everybody but her, because they couldn't find her, and at the end I said, “Please, let me talk to her on the phone and I will convince her to come back.” She was on vacation and so I spoke to her and I said, “You must come back, you must come back.” And she came back and she ended up being a fit. I didn't even try her. I didn't even ask her to read. She was unique. And I think that the success of Peppermint Soda—I owe her a lot, let's say. I owe her a lot of the success of the film. Without her, I think the film could've been completely different.
NOTEBOOK: It almost sounds like you were fated to use her.
KURYS: It's very often like that in a first film. The film was a great success. Things come together and you don't know why, like there's some magical thing in the air. I had the most incredible director of photography by mistake. There was a cinematographer who was very famous in America, and had done a lot of American films. I went on the recommendation of a friend to see his film and I was late, I was with an assistant. We entered the movie theater and the film had started already. The idea was to watch his work and eventually hire him. So we watched this movie and the picture was fantastic, it was so beautiful. And then the credits start and it's not him. It wasn't the guy that we were looking for. So now I'm saying, “I don't want to use the other guy, I want this guy!” And of course he was available and he liked the movie, and that was it. These details and accidents, you accept them because it's a special movie. It's special not only because it's my first movie, and not only because it was a success, but because it traveled a lot and made me become a director.
NOTEBOOK: What are some of the challenges of working from your own life? I would imagine on some level it makes things easier because you're writing what you know. But then on another level, there's the question of how much you want to reveal and what people will think.
KURYS: I think most artists take something from their inner private selves, their lives. Even people who don't say it—I think most works of art are pretty close to the artist, even if they're not directly autobiographical. To say I was inspired by my own childhood when I made this film is not so different from François Truffaut. We don't question ourselves. We don't question this idea of what are they going to say, the parents and the family. You need to be a little ambitious and brave in terms of proving yourself, if that's what it takes. I don't feel particularly shy about that. I think it's a way of connecting with other people to explore what you see and what you went through and the truth. The closer to reality and truth you are, the more of a chance there will be that you reach out. In filming, what you're looking for as an artist, as a writer, as a director, is connection with other people. You see the things that you saw, and that's how you connect.
NOTEBOOK: Were you a cinephile growing up?
KURYS: I went to a lot of movies because there was nothing else to do in my childhood. No television, no nothing. I would go to movies three, four times a week as soon as I was able to go alone—when I was eleven or twelve—and I started to love that. I could stay two times. I loved American movies at the time, and most of the French films when they came out. But I was not learning or approaching cinema as an art form. I was just enjoying the movies and the fact that I could identify with one of the heroes and laugh or cry. It was my only moment of—not happiness, that's too strong a word—you know, pleasure. So I was always like that. I go to the movies—well, now I don't go to the movies so much, since they're so easy to watch at home—for joy and pleasure. It's a way of traveling to other countries and other people's minds. It's a different approach in my view. I never went to film school or anything like that. I never went to acting school either.
NOTEBOOK: What did your family think of Peppermint Soda?
KURYS: Everybody has a different point of view. My mother was exhilarated. She was really happy because she never felt I would become famous or anything like that. She thought that my little story and my little private world was a great joy for her. My sister wrote me a letter saying sorry, forgive me for everything I did to you. Basically, they take for granted what you say in the movie when you put family on the screen. I guess it's the same thing for books. As soon as it's printed out, it's the truth. For instance, I dedicated the film to my sister at some point, I don't even know why. We had this black moment in the movie, a dark black screen in the train at the beginning of the movie, and I decided, “Ah! I should write something on this black screen, or it's going to be horrible!” So I said I should dedicate the movie, and whom would I dedicate it to? My sister. And then I made up the dedication: “For my sister, who still hasn’t returned my orange sweater...” When she saw the movie, she said, “I'm so sorry for the orange sweater,” and there was no orange sweater, ever! And I don't think she was joking. She was serious. I made up a joke, but at the same time it was true. They take everything for the truth. It's very funny. I made other films after that, like Entre nous, dealing with my parents and my life and I noticed that every time I look at something and write something, they think it's true. It's happening. It's happened. It happened because it's in the movie.
NOTEBOOK: Do you feel as if there was a difference in how French versus American viewers responded to the film?
KURYS: No, not really. Well, the film was a success because it was one of the first times someone was giving a female point of view on adolescence. The other movies were made by men and focused on boyhood. So women went a lot—including mothers and grandmothers and daughters. It was a success in the States and England and other countries and I don't think that the audience reacted differently, really. Maybe the Americans found it more exotic, but I'm not even sure. It's very universal. Growing up, you grow up in Japan, you grow up in America—the culture and costumes may change, but the emotions are the same. Two sisters growing up in a divorced family in Spain could've been the same.
NOTEBOOK: There’s definitely a lot to relate to in this girl’s coming-of-age.
KURYS: Yeah, it's my kind of movie. I like this movie! Whether it comes from your country or my country, whenever something like that happens, it touches me. It touches a chord in everybody, I think.