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The Joy of Being a Woman: Agnès Varda's One Sings, the Other Doesn't

Thérèse Liotard as Suzanne Galibier and Valérie Mairesse as Pauline in One Sings, the Other Doesn't (Criterion))

Varda's One Sings, the Other Doesn't is challenging and multi-voiced act of art by and about women; "happiness" in unconventional arrangements its most radical gesture.

One Sings, the Other Doesn't
Agnès Varda


28 May 2019


"I was accepted into the family of women," says the voice-over of Suzanne (Thérèse Liotard) when she gets her first factory job. This flashback parallels and follows soon after another voice-over flashback, that of her distant friend Pauline (Valérie Mairesse), a young French woman at an Amsterdam abortion clinic in 1972 who perceives the same "family of women" and begins to write about it.

At the clinic, the camera has panned across a room of women of various races and nationalities who have arrived from afar, all sitting together yet each one gazing into her own middle-distance, united by their common isolation. Then they take a pleasure cruise on the river while Pauline, in her clear glassy voice, sings a new song composed for the occasion.

Such is one of the transcendent moments in One Sings, the Other Doesn't ("L'une chante, l'autre pas"), a 1977 film from Agnès Varda. Restored a few years ago by Varda's Ciné-Tamaris Productions, this declaration of vitality finally makes its Region 1 debut on DVD and Blu-ray thanks to Criterion.

Varda, who died in March of this year at age 90, wasn't only one of the world's most celebrated filmmakers but one who'd been actively productive the longest, and always, as an old song says, serenely independent. She made her first feature, La Pointe Courte, in 1954, and her last, the Oscar-nominated documentary Faces Places, in 2017. All of her films are marked by curiosity and respect and generosity regarding how people live in the world, and also by a seemingly off-the-cuff though carefully considered style that combines directness with formal exploration. That is, the films seem pieced together yet all of a piece, or perhaps all of a peace, in themselves and with each other.

Water drop by qimono (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

For example, One Sings, the Other Doesn't is in some ways like an answer to her own 1965 feature, Happiness ("Le bonheur"). That fable focused on a male protagonist who was equally happy with his wife and his mistress. When the wife abruptly drowns, possibly by suicide, he passes through mourning and conveniently replaces one woman with another in an eternal cycle. The film's sense of rapturous full-color beauty and serenity catalyzes its disturbing frisson. By saying virtually nothing about the women and hardly giving them any voice or distinct personality, Varda created a pioneering feminist critique in film that doesn't focus on the POV of its women, and that's the point.

If that film is a fantasy dream of the bourgeois husband with two women, One Sings, the Other Doesn't follows the separate but entwined views of two women a few years apart in age who feel a strong sense of sympathy and friendship around whatever men they happen to have in their lives. Taking place from 1962 through the present of 1976, the story bridges its jumps with narration from three female voices who function in harmony, those of Varda and her two heroines.

This sense of harmony and counterpoint is reproduced musically by the fact that one heroine writes songs and travels with three other women in a kind of pop-folk ensemble whose public performances at various points in the movie have both a documentary and editorial flavor. The catchy songs, with lyrics by Varda, all deliver or demonstrate messages about being women. One example is "Mon corps est a moi" ("My body is mine"). By the way, this is a real musical trio whom Varda incorporated into the film: Les Orchidées, consisting of Joelle Papineau, Micou Papineau and Doudou Greffier. Composer Francois Wertheimer plays the hitchhiker they pick up along the way.

When the story opens in 1962, Pauline, nicknamed Pomme ("apple"--the source of knowledge?), is a sheltered girl in high school feeling typically rebellious and wanting to get started on her pop music career. In later years, she looks back and admits she acted like a cow ("une vache") with her parents as she tricked them out of money so her 22-year-old ex-neighbor Suzanne (Thérèse Liotard) could afford an abortion. Suzanne, who has two small children, lives with a married (but not to her) photographer who makes beautiful portraits of sad women. The portraits don't sell.


This artist, Jerome (Robert Dadiès), waits for his subjects to become exhausted with posing before he snaps the picture, but Pauline's forthrightness and optimism foils his project. The implication is that she may be a new type of woman who refuses to be framed in tragedy by male artists, or what you will. In this section and later regarding Pauline's songs, the film is free to incorporate voices of critique or dialectic in terms of response to or analysis of art by or about women, reminding us that this movie is also a challenging and multi-voiced act of art by and about women.

Watching the film becomes an engaging series of discoveries resembling the mess of life as interpreted through art, and it won't serve our purpose to discuss the many events that await the viewer. We'll only hint that this first section in 1962 functions as a sort of dramatic inversion of Happiness and that, while Suzanne's life initially resembles a train wreck while Pauline's is full of promise, nothing remains on one track before the film closes on an ensemble vision that resembles an alternative utopia of re-imagining the family.

There's a scene in the last half when Pauline, who had deluded herself into an Oriental "fairytale" with a husband in Iran, makes a proposition to husband Darius (Ali Rafie) that he calls crazy, and it kind of is, but she answers that maybe she's making sense for the first time. While shooting the locations in Iran, which feature the actress bare-headed in front of a gorgeous mosque, Varda couldn't have known she was capturing an era that would soon be "gone with the wind". In conjunction with the feature, she shot a short subject included as a bonus, Pleasures of Love in Iran (1976) about ancient Persian art.

As Varda says in Women Are Naturally Creative, a one-hour TV interview made to promote the film, family is vital to life but can be defined and organized in many ways. That's why, while being interviewed, she doesn't limit her young son from barging into the office. Other filmmakers would omit this kind of detail or take care to restrain it in advance, she states, but it's the kind of thing she values because that's life and it's always getting left out of micro-managed productions. She's clearly in charge but feels everyone around her is a collaborator. Both of her children have small roles in One Sings, the Other Doesn't, whose willingness to find "happiness" in unconventional arrangements is its most radical gesture.

Valérie Mairesse as Pauline (Criterion)

This may be a bit of a digression, but such things can't help but remind us of one of Varda's most privately guarded bits of seeming unconventionality, her very happy marriage to apparently gay or bisexual filmmaker Jacques Demy, who died of AIDS. He's glimpsed briefly in the interview. Her biopic of him, Jacquot de Nantes (1991), is one of the most loving and intimate tributes ever paid by one filmmaker or partner to another and fully deserves a Criterion edition. It's another high-water mark in a career of signal achievements.

Returning to that bonus TV interview, Varda also points out that she makes films about all kinds of topics, not only women's lives, and she cites her documentary about the Black Panthers. True, but that documentary takes the time to examine the role of women in that organization, and that's a detail many (male) "docu-menteurs" would have skipped.

As we've made clear, abortion is a major plot element in the feature, not least because Pauline and Suzanne reunite in 1972, after ten years of dropping each other postcards, at a rally for a teen girl's abortion trial that was a real legal and cultural event in France leading to reforms. The film includes no women (or men) who oppose abortion because the movie's very French and sovereignty over one's body is a basic political condition of its perception.

By the same logic, the body itself is a major theme. There's a moment of nudity during the early photography section, and much more nudity in a bonus short Varda made for French TV, Réponse de femmes (1975), which stresses the primacy of being a body and having legal control over it. Aimed at the middle-class French women who'd be watching it on TV, this short expresses feminine diversity through age and hair but not, as the Amsterdam scene would do in One Sings, the Other Doesn't, through ethnicity and race.

One Sings, the Other Doesn't falls into a 1970s development, especially in European cinema, of feminist films about the burgeoning women's movements or illustrative of women's conditions. Not all of them were directed by women, e.g., Alexander Kluge's Part-Time Work of a Domestic Slave (1973), Volker Schlöndorff's The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (1975, co-written with his wife Margarethe von Trotta), Alain Tanner's Messidor (1979). Other items, such as certain films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, could be described as informed by a consciousness of women's issues from the social ferment, e.g. The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978).

Then there were those films fully created by women filmmakers, including von Trotta's The Second Awakening of Christa Klages (1978), Chantal Akerman's monumental "kitchen epic" Jeanne Dielman, 28 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), and this film by Varda. All these films are intelligent and involving, but in comparing Varda to the others, what stands out most in contrast is Varda's sense of humor and optimism.

Varda's explorations are as much grounded in clarity and anger as any of the others, but her iron is tempered with gentleness and her politics in whimsy. She offers not only a complaint but a solution, a new way of making do or rather remaking society while remembering that (to quote a later song) girls just wanna have fun, and indeed deserve to have it without punishment. As Varda declared, her heroines take a journey that allows them to discover what it means to have a woman's body, and to discover "the joy of being a woman". She also stated, in an interview and in the original press booklet included as another extra, that the film demonstrates Simone de Beauvoir's assertion that one isn't born a woman but becomes one.

Some bad things happen in the movie and Varda doesn't look away from them, yet the idea that womanhood isn't a curse or a crucible but a journey of invention is finally the movie's most serenely radical idea -- again we're compelled to mention Varda's serenity. In other words, Varda's vision is in its essence a commitment to creativity and a respect for the individuals who constitute a "family". She proves such inventions are possible, because she just goes ahead and does it. Here's the film, the tangible proof of her thesis, and it feels fresh after 40 years.

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