Interviews

“I Couldn’t Avoid the ’60s”: Diane Kurys on Her Early Filmmaking in France

From capturing teenage innocence to 1968, Kurys’s slice-of-life movies are sparkling and big-hearted, but not without a caustic side.

Scene from Diane Kurys, Peppermint Soda (1977) (all images courtesy Quad Cinema)

Diane Kurys’s 1977 Peppermint Soda is a deadpan classic: a proudly autobiographical, bittersweet coming-of-age tale. The film follows teen Parisians Anne (Eléonore Klarwein) and her older sister Frédérique (Odile Michel) over the school year of 1963–64, contrasting the smiling photos taken by their parents on faraway shores during vacation. Released in France as Diabolo Menthe (so-named for the pistachio-colored soda shared by Anne and her femme friends) shares little sexual hysteria with canonical American high school movies, instead laying out a disparate story of a girl’s innocence being lost bit by bit, memory by memory — interiorizing the ambivalent stuff most Hollywood screenplays won’t touch in the first place.

Having worked most of her 20s as a theater actress before making Soda with no prior filmmaking experience, Kurys is known 13 titles later for making slice-of-life comedies that are sparkling and big-hearted, but not without a caustic side. After the breakout success of Peppermint Soda she would revisit Anne five years later in Cocktail Molotov, this time poking fun at her heroine’s petit bourgeois set for their failed aspirations to reshape society after 1968.

Originally released by New Yorker Films at the Lincoln Plaza, Peppermint Soda plays this week at Quad Cinema in a new digital restoration, alongside Kurys’s 1983 drama Entre Nous, starring Isabelle Huppert. I spoke to the writer-director by phone about the film’s 40th anniversary.

*   *   *

Scene from Diane Kurys, Peppermint Soda

Steve Macfarlane: Peppermint Soda is dedicated to your sister.

Diane Kurys: Yes, but it’s my life. I was raised by my mother and my older sister. In 1963 I was not Anne’s age, but also not yet Frédérique’s. In the beginning we did not know who would direct the film; when I applied for the grant, I had to put down the name of whomever would direct. I didn’t know, so I listed myself.  I got the grant, which is called “L’aide a l’avance sur recette du Centre national du cinéma,” and I went to Gaumont, but there were not a lot of producers who wanted to help make the film. “Oh, it’s a girl’s story.” Finally, by chance, a friend of mine told me about a guy who had been a printer, who was very rich and he wanted to get into movies. So I went and read it for him, and he took a bet on me. I got the grant in April and the film was released in December. It all happened in one year.

SM: It doesn’t feel like the work of a first-time filmmaker.

DK: By 1976 the memories were only 15 years old for me, so it was pretty natural: “This is what I see. This is what I remember.” The writing and the direction I knew going in, because I had been an actor. Most of the teachers were friends of mine from the stage. I didn’t know what to do with the camera. On the first day, my cinematographer, Philippe Rousselot, who now works in America and is very famous, helped me. He showed me: “Here’s the camera. This is a 50mm lens. Put your eye up to it — look. Closer! Okay, now the 75mm.” I think we had three lenses at the time. “You see the difference? Go from left to right. Try it.” In half an hour he basically taught me everything I needed to know.

It sounds funny but it’s really true: when you know exactly what you want to express, it’s not so difficult to make the shot. Even for a first-time director. I was not trying to pretend, to do long traveling shots, or anything —  I was just filming the way I had seen things.

Scene from Diane Kurys, Peppermint Soda

SM: Tell me about the politics of Peppermint Soda. One quick scene has background graffiti that reads “OAS = SS,” a reference to the Organisation armée secrète’s terrorist operations in France as well as in occupied Algeria. The older sister, Frédérique, becomes a committed antifascist. There’s a classroom discussion of the Charonne Metro Station massacre, when eight people were killed by the French state while protesting the OAS.

DK: I was not very political when I was 13 but my sister was. High school was a time and place of questioning the world. It seems to me very obvious that I couldn’t avoid the ’60s. Whether from the left or the right, people were really passionate about politics. Every subject was to be discussed, opposed from all sides, which is why it was banned from high schools to talk about it. People still believed in Communism, and that there could be a happier world. Things like that. I’m less political than my sister, but I did make the decision to go to a kibbutz, picking oranges and grapefruits for a year in Galilee. It wasn’t about going to Israel — it was about going to live in a community.

SM: Which you put in the next film following Anne’s story, Molotov Cocktail.

DK: After Peppermint Soda, I thought I knew it all: you just need to have a little bit of taste and a few images in your mind, you can write any movie you want. So afterwards, I didn’t work that much, I was so sure of myself I was a little bit lazy. I don’t hate Molotov Cocktail but it wasn’t what it could have been. I had wanted to make a film about May 1968, but it would cost too much to rebuild the barricades, which is why nobody has done it.

In 1968 I was 20 years old, the right age. I was living in the heart of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. I was not at the Night of the Barricades — I went the next morning, to see the effects. It’s very hard to explain today, what it was. It was unique, it never happened again afterwards. Overnight, a change in the attitude, the way of talking — in the street, you would meet someone and they would say tu, not vous. I don’t think the movement was even explicitly political — it was in the mind; it anticipated the liberation of women. And for me, it’s never stopped.

Scene from Diane Kurys, Peppermint Soda

SM: You didn’t become conservative.

DK: I don’t think I did or will. The human relationships sort of evolved, radically, at the time, and they never went back! When I went to my old high school and asked permission to shoot Peppermint Soda, this time there were boys in the school, and they were smoking in the corridors. And I still looked like one the students.

SM: It follows that the act of growing up means things are darker and more complicated by the end of Peppermint Soda. After a supposedly idyllic camping trip with her older boyfriend, Frédérique develops a spark with the father of her friend Muriel.

DK: It’s a circle; the movie starts with the end of the holiday and the year proceeds. I don’t think I decided, “Oh, I’m gonna end it like that” — but because it’s nostalgia, it comes in more vividly. The photos of the sisters on their vacations — those were supposed to be full scenes, but we had no money so we had to make the script more efficient. Sometimes it helps to be broke … But not always!

As for the piece with Muriel’s father, it embarrasses me a little bit.

SM: Why?

DK: Well, it comes from the time when girls are completely panicked about boys. After school we would meet them in the street — they might be 15 years older than us, just finished seeing the next high-schooler in the next street. It was a little bit unbelievable, this attraction between a 14-year-old girl and a middle-aged man. It never happened to me, I just made it up. And the actor was a little shy, you know … Anyway, it’s the choice I made. But my son loves that scene.

Scene from Diane Kurys, Peppermint Soda

SM: Some of the scenes are shockingly candid.

DK: Even when I had no idea I would go on to become an actor or a director, I spent my childhood thinking, just, “One day someone will know.” “One day I am going to tell this story.” But not as revenge. It’s funny, but I live my life like that. Four of my movies are telling the same story: about my family, my parents, their divorce. And it comes from being very, very unhappy. The reason is because I was born into a lie, about the identity of my real father. After telling that story in For A Woman, it’s obvious that making films is my therapy.

SM: Have the years added details to those stories?

I still have my sister, and she offered to do a DNA test. But I don’t want to do it, because I don’t care. Both my parents are dead. Now that I’ve made the films, it wouldn’t make any difference.

Diane Kurys’s Peppermint Soda is screening at Quad Cinema (34 West 13th St, West Village, Manhattan) through Thursday, August 16.

comments (0)