PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Film

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

Criterion

28 May 2019

Other

"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.

(Criterion)

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.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.

Music

While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Music

Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.

Books

Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.

Music

Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.

Books

Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.

Film

In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.

Music

The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.

Television

The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.

Music

The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller
Music

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.

Music

When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.

Music

20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.

Music

The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.

Books

Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.

Music

Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."

Music

50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.

Film

Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.