From One Sings, the Other Doesn't (L'une chante l'autre pas) (1977) (Courtesy of Criterion Collection)

Abortion and Difference Feminism in Agnès Varda’s ‘One Sings, the Other Doesn’t’

It is the impossible demand placed on the woman that drives the engine of Agnès Varda's One Sings, the Other Doesn't.


Blue Painting by Mondschwinge (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

Relatively early in Agnès Varda’s 1976 film One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (L’une chante l’autre pas), Pauline (Valèrie Mairesse)—the one who sings and at this moment a 17-year-old high school girl—asks her female philosophy teacher whether one might consider feminism a practical philosophy. The teacher assents and Pauline goes on to inquire how one might go about obtaining a safe abortion. The scene is set in France 1962 when abortion remained illegal and those who could afford truly safe operations were forced to travel to Switzerland and convince the local authorities that the procedure was necessary for reasons of health. Pauline makes her inquiries on behalf of Suzanne (Thèrése Liotard)—the other, who doesn’t sing is at this moment a 22-year-old woman with two illegitimate children deriving from her relationship with a married photographer named Jérôme (Robert Dadiès). She is pregnant with a third child that the couple can ill afford.

The philosophy teacher, so ready to agree that feminism is indeed a practical philosophy, demurs immediately upon realizing precisely which practical matter Pauline is referencing. She quickly flees the discomfiting practicalities of abortion, implicitly insisting that her role is to provide guidance within the theoretical flights of philosophy, not any manifestation of its vexatious intellectual quibbles in the less rarefied realms of quotidian life. Pauline is forced to turn to her fellow students, none of whom believe that she is really asking “for a friend”. Indeed, the assumption naturally seems to be that Pauline must be asking for herself insofar as it is difficult to believe that someone would put themselves in such an uncomfortable position for a friend.

Pauline’s interlocutors would be all the more astounded to discover that Suzanne is not really a friend at all; rather, she is a mere acquaintance, someone Pauline remembers “getting into trouble” (that is getting pregnant out of wedlock) and being forced out of her parents’ home and thus out of the neighborhood they shared. Pauline met Suzanne again only by happenstance. She had wandered into Jèrôme’s shop and marveled at how unhappy her former acquaintance appeared in the portraits Jèrôme had taken of her. Jèrôme insists that he captures not sadness but rather the truth within his models; indeed, he forces his models to pose for hours until their resistance breaks down and only then does he attain the pictures he desires. When Pauline insists that Suzanne looks miserable, Jèrôme jokes that perhaps he is the cause insofar as she lives with him and raises his children. In this random manner, Pauline comes into Suzanne’s life and immediately takes it upon herself to arrange Suzanne’s abortion (researching options and even tricking her own parents into providing the funds for the operation).

Now, the interaction with the philosophy teacher is a fleeting moment and really serves as the opening of the sequence in which Pauline looks into the practical matters of the abortion for Suzanne. It appears nearly inconsequential, and yet I argue that in that brief exchange lies the crux of the entire film, for implicit in that exchange resides a host of assumptions and assertions that unfolds across the narrative and that informs the ethos of Varda’s vision of a healthy feminism. Pauline insists that feminism must forgo speculative abstractions in favor of practical gains and that foremost among those gains (for this narrative, at least, or for this notion of a robust feminism) is access to safe abortions, free from the infliction of physical and emotional pain. In this regard, it is important to the political point of the scene that Pauline barely knows Suzanne; her interest in this abortion derives from fellow-feeling for another woman and the pragmatic ethics that responds to the exigencies placed upon women by biology and societal mores. Varda’s hope for a healthy feminism rests upon a set of seeming contradictions that theoretical philosophy abhors but that pragmatism cannot evade.

The concern for evaluating the role of philosophy in understanding feminism broadly and abortion particularly is of vital importance at this moment in US cultural and legal history, making now an ideal time to revisit this quirky Varda film and its optimistic feminism that clearly places the right to abortion at the center of women’s political/social standing. In the middle of May, the governor of Alabama signed into law a bill declaring abortion illegal with exceptions only for those cases where bringing the child to term would threaten the mother’s life; no exceptions are made for victims of rape or incest. This comes roughly 45 years after the Supreme Court ruled on the legality of abortion in Roe v. Wade (declaring abortion to fall under the implicit “right to privacy” that Justice Blackmun, the author of the majority opinion, discerned within the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution) and brings to the forefront once again an issue that has consistently beleaguered social, sexual, and legal relationships for more than a century in the US.

No issue (aside, perhaps, from the right to vote) has been more central to the various movements and belief systems collectively known as feminism than abortion; and certainly no issue has been more controversial, more contentious, and more longstanding. Deriving from nature’s propensity for having (many but not all) members of the plant and animal kingdoms distribute the responsibilities of reproduction across the genders so that the male fertilizes an egg that the female retains and bears, abortion involves a complex of social, moral, and ethical questions that are almost entirely obscured by reducing the issue to a decision between being “pro-life” or “pro-choice”.

And yet, lurking behind that binary reduction is a very real and ultimately impossible dilemma when dealing with abortion as a philosophical issue as Pauline would have her teacher do. Abortion brings into stark contest two values people tend to hold dear: the value of life and the value of autonomy—the right to exist and the right to liberty. The decision on Roe v. Wade brings out these two elements rather clearly even if it fails to resolve them in a manner that many people (at least those that look into the matter carefully) find all that satisfactory. On the one hand, the court declared abortion to fall under a “right to privacy”, itself a contested right with respect to constitutionality and thus Blackmun’s reference to “penumbras”—that is rights derived by implication from rights specifically noted in the Constitution. Here the right to privacy is seen to fall under the shadow (as an implicit right) of the Due Process clause’s protection of liberty.

On the other hand, the court employed the trimester framework to address the issue of “personhood”. As Blackmun recognized, if a fetus is established a ‘person’ within the framework of the Fourteenth Amendment, “the appellant’s case, of course, collapses, for the fetus’ right to life would then be guaranteed specifically by the Amendment.” So, in order to prevent the right to privacy with respect to abortion from conflicting with the right to life of a person, the fetus was declared (within the first trimester) to be a non-person owing to the fact that it was not “viable” outside of the womb.


(Courtesy of Criterion Collection)

The court’s decision, and indeed the abortion issue generally, has given rise to a veritable cottage industry of philosophical argument, but again, these arguments boil down to a basic conundrum involving the irreconcilability, in this case, of personal autonomy (liberty) and the life of an other (whether a legal person or simply something with the potential to become such). The difficulty isn’t finding strong arguments that support one right or the other—ideally most people desire both—the difficulty lies in the fact that in particular circumstances these two rights come into conflict and cannot be made to resolve mutually.

This is precisely why Pauline finds herself insisting upon the practical nature of feminism when confronting abortion. The abstract philosophical arguments either cancel each other out or we are placed in the position of attempting to weigh one value against another—either personal autonomy trumps the potential life a fetus might enjoy or that life trumps the mother’s liberty. It is for this reason, I suspect, that many commentators on the abortion issue get frustrated with the notion of men insisting on what should or should not be done with respect to this decision (hence the slogan, “my body, my choice”). Abortion as a practical decision and an impossible confrontation of two values falls almost entirely upon the woman; it is her bodily autonomy that is placed into question and it is largely her expectations in life that have to be counterbalanced by the demands of potentiality inherent in the unborn.

It is the impossible demand placed on the woman that drives the engine of Varda’s One Sings, the Other Doesn’t. The film unapologetically insists upon the central importance of the right to safe abortion. Drawing on her experience as a documentarian, Varda has her protagonists meet up again ten years after Suzanne’s abortion at a demonstration outside the 1972 Bobigny courthouse trial where a case was decided concerning a mother who had arranged an abortion for her mother. The human rights lawyer Gisèle Halimi (the defense lawyer) even makes a cameo appearance as herself. Halimi was also involved with “the 343”, a group of prominent French women, including Varda herself, who signed a manifesto published in Le nouvel observateur declaring that they had undergone illegal abortions; signs in support of “the 343” are visible among the protesters. Pauline tells Suzanne of an abortion she had in the intervening years (an abortion that directly led to her meeting her soon-to-be husband) and Suzanne works for a family-planning clinic that specifically serves the underprivileged and advises them regarding abortion and birth control. In short, abortion is at the heart of Varda’s understanding of the practical nature of feminism.

And yet, the film toes a precarious line concerning attitudes toward abortion. The consequences of abortion and having children are not shirked in this exploration of a largely sunny feminism. We learn that Suzanne, in order to save some of the money Pauline got for her to pay debts she and Jèrôme had accumulated, opted for the cheaper method of abortion (the French woman with the probe instead of the trip to a Swiss clinic). As a result, she is unable to have any more children. Pauline goes to Holland for her abortion and takes her fellow “abortionees” on a boat trip exploring the city. She sings a light, folkish song depicting the camaraderie the group experiences that some might take as trivializing the decisions surrounding abortion. But a more discerning look at Pauline’s and her companions’ faces will reveal a lot more indecision, regret, and confusion than is evinced by the somewhat trite lyrics (written by Varda). The song portrays the women as sharing a bond, a common affliction ( malaise) that resulted from being “abused by their Adams”. In Pauline’s conception, the men have left the women in this impossible position, forced to make an impossible decision.


(Courtesy of Criterion Collection)

But here lies a crucial conundrum in Varda’s feminism (one that doesn’t weaken it but rather reveals how messy and complicated a practical philosophy of feminism becomes when confronted with lived existence). These women are brought together not because they are all going through the same thing precisely. On the surface they are, of course. They are all having abortions at the same Dutch clinic. But they are all there for different reasons. Some feel they are too old for a new child, some are unmarried and unsupported, some approach the abortion with fear, others with regret, some (like Pauline) merely rue that they find themselves in such a “fix”. In each case, we are left to understand, these women are brought to an unfortunate situation through the specific and non-generalizable circumstances of their lives. Their decisions vis-à-vis the unborn growing within them is entirely personal, entirely their own. And yet, they are in this circumstance as women at this shared moment. They share in what cannot be shared.

An abortion, in Varda’s implicit view, is a woman’s plight because it impacts that sex alone in such a direct manner (men being impacted relatively indirectly insofar as it is not their bodies being modified by pregnancy and being operated upon in an abortion procedure). Thus, it is something that women as a group share (hence, the group movement or movements encapsulated within feminism) and at the same time because it is so specific to an individual’s body and life it is a situation that cannot properly be shared. For Varda, there is something, some element of female existence, which sets women as a whole off from men. In this manner, Varda’s One Sings, the Other Doesn’t anticipates the “difference feminism” movement of the 1980s and ’90s.

“Difference feminism” was a response to the social equality movements in feminism of the 1960s and ’70s. Its proponents, including most prominently Carol Gilligan and Mary Daly, suggested that the search for equality between the sexes often posited (explicitly or implicitly) that sexual difference did not impact the ways in which the sexes should be treated and understood socially and that this assumption reduced women to a (perhaps flawed) version of men. True feminism, Gilligan insisted, required an understanding of and respect for the real differences between the sexes and their impacts on the lives and outlooks of women. For some writers those differences were the result of history and social construction, for others they were essential and inherent.

In either case, a robust feminism required more than surface social equity; it required an appreciation for what made women distinct from men (beyond and perhaps accounting for their treatment by largely patriarchal societies). The obvious criticism of difference feminism was that it threatened to succumb to the very stereotypes (the woman as body-centered, emotional, nurturing) that buttressed patriarchy. But its adherents argued that difference in and of itself had no bearing on valuation or equality of treatment and certain authors (Daly in particular) declared that feminine morality was actually superior to the dominant moral outlook of modern society. Although critics sometimes claimed that difference feminism posited that all women were somehow alike, its proponents suggested that sexual difference did not reduce all women to some prototype but rather accounted for certain shared tendencies and starting points that could develop in highly ramified, individual ways.


(Courtesy of Criterion Collection)

This view is succinctly set forth in an odd 1975 short film Varda made in response to the question “What is a woman?” entitled Réponse de femmes. The short mostly features a group of women closely bunched together, delivering lines about womanhood and their disdain for misogynist categories of understanding femininity. The script operates through the logic of supplementarity. A woman occupies a female body—indeed the script declares “I am a woman’s body” but not “just the hot spots of a man’s desire…not just breasts and a vagina.” A woman has a mind that “thinks differently from a man’s.” A woman is “not just a man with no cock and brains.” In nearly all cases, a woman is not just whatever society deems her to be (although she is perhaps also that, or at least also has the capacity for being that). There is something posited as essential to womanhood that stands as a surplus to all of the categories presented in “a man’s world” to account for it. So the essential element of womanhood is precisely that surplus that cannot be defined within the categories of thought currently at one’s disposal.

At one point, a tall blonde in the center of the group intones “So I’m unique, okay, but I’m every woman.” Varda emphasizes the paradox by immediately repeating the exact clip from the soundtrack but now with a different view of the speaker. The other women then cheer in support. In One Sings, Pauline expresses a similar sentiment in the lyrics of one of her songs: “Je suis femme, je suis moi” (“I am woman, I am me”). For Varda, being Pauline or Suzanne or Agnès or the unnamed tall blonde means being the representative of a category that ultimately cannot have representatives in that there is no representative member of the category, no member that encapsulates all that it means to be a woman (or even some averaged down approximation thereof) precisely because there is no totalizing conception that accounts for the womanly manner of being—and yet there is some inherently womanly manner of being for Varda; it is not just a non-essential happenstance of genitalia.

That all of this can be said to apply to a man’s mode of being as well is beside the point for Varda. The masculine mode is sanctioned by patriarchal society and thus made invisible—just the way things go. The womanly manner of being is visible and purportedly aberrant precisely because she is so often reduced to category—”that’s just how women act and think, they can’t seem to help it.”

That a woman is not just what men take her to be and yet perhaps also has those characteristics is the precarious yet intellectually honest position Varda establishes throughout the film. This returns us to one of Pauline’s encounters with Jèrôme. The photographer convinces Pauline to serve as his newest model but he quickly finds her unsuitable. “You’re too guarded,” he complains. “I just don’t have that overwhelmed look you like. I won’t be a victim, even for a picture,” Pauline rejoins. Jèrôme responds: “You just refuse to be real. What I’m after is Woman…in her naked truth.” Pauline takes this as a suggestion that they try some nude shots and she disrobes but Jèrôme whines that even this isn’t likely to help. He seeks something (victimhood, perhaps, but certainly exposure, vulnerability) that Pauline refuses to supply. He wants a representation of woman that comports to his desire for an alluring intangible repletion that lies just beyond his grasp—something available to his imaginary that is unavailable as an encounter with a woman in her full presence. “It’s that sense of surrender,” Jèrôme rhapsodizes, “the secret of life you women have within you. It’s a weighty secret.”

What Jèrôme desires is engagement (even if only through the mediation of ocularity, of visual art) with that surplus that Varda posits is the essential nature of woman. But we are meant to see in Jèrôme the flawed misogynist misprision of femininity that not only distorts reality but that predatorily consumes the potentialities of a womanly existence. Pauline even positively refers back to Jèrôme’s concern with that “weighty secret” during her ruminations on the Dutch abortion clinic and the companionate sadness experienced by the women there. The problem, it would seem, with Jèrôme’s stereotype and the chasm that lies between it and Pauline’s understanding of the lived surplus of woman lies in the paradoxical relationship to category that potentially haunts the difference feminism upon which One Sings, the Other Doesn’t constructs its notion of a robust and healthy feminism.

A woman has access to that weighty secret of life (the ability to bear children) that lies within her (which Jèrôme celebrates as a source of her overwhelming existential plight) but she is not defined by that secret and indeed holds no singular and necessary attitude toward it. Being pro-choice in One Sings, the Other Doesn’t does not preclude its protagonists from also being pro-life. Pauline celebrates pregnancy and the joyous moment of gleefully being a “balloon” when one is ready to have a child. Indeed, when she sings a song glorifying pregnancy, an audience member questions whether or not that same rhetoric might be employed to deride advocates of the legitimacy of abortion. Pauline sees no contradiction or rather she sees the possibility of feminism as a practical philosophy that inherently embraces that contradiction. One is not just concerned with bodily autonomy but also with the joyful possibilities inherent in a potential life. The important point here is not that the film attempts to have it both ways; rather, it explores the profound tension that forms the essential crux of the decision whether or not to have an abortion. Pauline and Suzanne love the idea of motherhood; they love their children. And yet they both had to face a time in their lives when abortion appeared to be the best option. It is the kind of decision no one would envy and that no one can make in the place of another.


Criterion Collection presents a blu-ray edition of Agnès Varda’s One Sings, the Other Doesn’t in a digital restoration supervised by the director herself. The edition includes the short films Rèponse de femmesand Plaisir d’amour en Iran (1976), which depicts Pauline’s amorous escapade in Iran in greater detail than provided in the longer film. Also included is the 1977 documentary Women are Naturally Creative: Agnès Varda, by Katja Raganelli, featuring extended interviews with Varda and several behind-the-scenes moments during the shooting of One Sings, the Other Doesn’t.