One Sings, the Other Doesn’t: Bodies and Selves

It has taken me forty years to appreciate the audacity of Agnès Varda in writing and directing One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977). Not only did Varda make her subject the most crucial and vexed issue of the feminist movement, at that time as it is today—a woman’s right to control her body, specifically her reproductive system—she also fashioned a narrative that is as rife with contradictions and reversals as freedom struggles always are. 

One Sings, the Other Doesn’t recounts, with guarded optimism, fourteen years of the women’s liberation movement through the story of a long friendship, often conducted via postcards, between two women, Pauline, a.k.a. Pomme (Valérie Mairesse), and Suzanne (Thérèse Liotard). While it is not an autobiographical film, Varda was certainly a participant in the coming to feminist consciousness in France that it evokes with considerable humor and a necessary dose of pathos. Born in Belgium in 1928, she grew up in the small French town of Sète, on the western edge of the Mediterranean coast. She studied art and philosophy in Paris, and in her early twenties became the stills photographer for Jean Vilar’s Théâtre national populaire (TNP), the leftist answer to the Comédie-Française. In 1954—for reasons she has always maintained were unclear to her except that she wanted to capture people’s voices and still photography couldn’t do that—she wrote and directed a feature film, La Pointe Courte, produced by her own company, Ciné-Tamaris, with which she has made all the subsequent features and short films of her sixty-five-year, enormously prolific career. 

Independent feature filmmaking was unheard-of at the time in France, where most movies were produced by large companies or the two television channels. Aspiring directors, after graduating from film school, had to spend years as assistants to directors, producers, and editors before they were allowed to helm a movie on their own. At the time Varda was making La Pointe Courte, there were no other French female directors. Alice Guy-Blaché, who was a contemporary of Georges Méliès and the Lumière brothers and made more than a thousand films by 1920, had been written out of film history; the early feminist director, theorist, and critic Germaine Dulac’s filmmaking had ended by World War II. The male directors who would become the creators of the French New Wave were just beginning to make short films. Varda was friends with one of them, Alain Resnais, and he agreed to edit La Pointe Courte. She recruited two stars of the TNP to play a couple whose relationship nearly comes apart because the man wants them to stay in Sète while the woman wants them to go back to Paris—their conflict anticipating that of Pomme and Darius in One Sings, the Other Doesn’t. 

Like the rest of the New Wave directors, Varda was influenced by the critic and theoretician André Bazin, who proposed that fiction films allow us to understand history—that the greatest of them are documents of the moment in which they are made, and that is the basis of their moral value as well. Varda, along with Jean-Luc Godard, radicalized Bazin’s position by openly mixing documentary and fictional elements, from the beginning of her career. The story of the couple from the city makes up only half of La Pointe Courte; the other half is a documentary-like portrait of the fishermen of the village, their families, and their struggle against government regulations that threaten their livelihood.

In the seven years between La Pointe Courte and her second feature, Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962), Varda made several short films, including L’opéra Mouffe (1958), which she shot while she was pregnant with her daughter, Rosalie Varda. She has described L’opéra Mouffe as an autobiographical documentary, a projection of her own physical and psychological condition onto women she saw in the street. Combining documentary and fantasy images, it may be the first film by a woman to focus subjectively on women’s bodies. Similarly, Cléo from 5 to 7, which resembles many films by male New Wave directors in that its central character is a beautiful young woman, is unique in its depiction of its heroine as she awaits the result of a test for cancer. New Wave heroines were hardly immortal; they were often shot dead or killed in car crashes. But only Varda could read a series of newspaper articles in 1961 about women and cancer and understand that a movie about that issue and the terror around it would be as revolutionary for its subject matter as for the play of real time against subjective time hinted at in its title. And the fact that, for nearly sixty years, the critical response to Cléo has been to canonize it for its experiment in cinematic time while ignoring the story it tells confirms the need for the critique of patriarchy that the film provokes.

In One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, the largely linear fictional narrative is grounded in the real-life events of the gradual transformation of French society brought about by second-wave feminism, and it often opens out into sequences that include nonactors. There are scenes in an abortion clinic, a family-planning clinic, town squares in France and Iran, outside a courthouse where a trial is taking place that will determine the legalization of abortion in France. Varda shoots these scenes as if she were making a documentary, with as much attention to the women waiting in the clinic, demonstrating outside the courthouse, or listening to Orchidée (an actual feminist folk group) as to her central characters. 

Sometimes, the documentary elements are combined with theatrical set pieces. Pauline, a singer, goes on tour for years with Orchidée, and we see several performances by the group, but One Sings, the Other Doesn’t isn’t, strictly speaking, a musical. Rather, the musical numbers are a way for Pauline and her female bandmates to express and disseminate their political messages. The lyrics are all by Varda herself, and they don’t easily translate into English. “Neither pop nor pope / My body belongs to me,” sings Pauline, leaping onto a ledge outside the Bobigny courthouse, where a case involving a mother who arranged an abortion for her sixteen-year-old daughter is being decided. In terms of filmmaking, it is one of the film’s most complex sequences. The actual Bobigny trial took place in 1972, three years before Varda’s film went into production, so the scene is a re-creation, with nonactors playing demonstrators and the legendary human-rights lawyer Gisèle Halimi (who was the mother’s defense attorney) at one point breaking through a police line to take some demonstrators into the courthouse. In the crowd, women carry banners in support of “the 343,” the prominent women—including Varda—who had signed a manifesto testifying that they had had illegal abortions, which was printed in 1971 in the influential left-of-center weekly Le nouvel observateur.

“Varda favors a mélange of blues, sea greens, and salmons.”

While Varda works in a realistic mode, her mise-en-scène is always expressive of the basic conflicts and inner worlds of her characters. When we first meet Pauline, she is a teenager living with her parents. Like many middle-class Paris apartments, theirs is small, crowded with furniture, photographs, and bric-a-brac, all carefully placed. Pauline’s style is confrontational. She overwhelms not just her parents but also the space they live in with her gestures, her words, her excess of physical energy. Much later in the film, Suzanne arrives in Hyères, on the Côte d’Azur, in a blast of sunlight. Colors spill over in almost every scene, at once vibrant and soft. Godard’s primaries—blue, red, yellow—have no place here. Varda favors a mélange of blues, sea greens, and salmons. The women in the film may go through tough times, but they always look like flowers or luscious fruit.

Excepting that they are both French, Caucasian, and heterosexual, Pauline and Suzanne could not be less alike, although they are bound together by the dawning realization of their oppression, and their embrace of a movement larger than themselves. Pauline is impulsive, outspoken, and theatrical in her self-presentation. Suzanne is undemonstrative and thoughtful, and she has difficulty acting on her desires. When they first encounter each other, Pauline is about to graduate from high school and Suzanne, in her midtwenties, is living with Jérôme (Robert Dadiès), a married, decidedly noncommercial photographer. They already have two young children, and Suzanne is pregnant with a third. Pauline scams money from her parents so that Suzanne can go to Switzerland to get a safe (although still illegal) abortion in a clinic there, while Pauline cares for the children. But after Jérôme commits suicide, Suzanne has no choice but to return to the farm where she grew up, and where her parents punish her for her sins by treating her like slave labor. The crisis of Suzanne’s unwanted pregnancy will turn both her and Pauline into activists, but it also initiates a ten-year separation between them. 

It is on the steps of the Bobigny courthouse in 1972 that Suzanne and Pauline meet again. Through fragmentary flashbacks, they catch each other up on their experiences of the past ten years: Suzanne has escaped the blighting cold of her parents’ farm by teaching herself typing and eventually opening a family-planning clinic in Hyères—no easy task in a country dominated by the Catholic church, where many women ask for the pill but fail to take it—where she continues to raise her two children alone. Although she would like to have a partner, the only man she is attracted to is a married pediatrician, and she has learned her lesson about married men. The more adventurous Pauline, who has renamed herself Pomme (with her halo of strawberry-blonde curls, round face, and compact body, she indeed evokes the image of an apple), has become a contemporary busker, taking her feminist performance group on the road. In Amsterdam, where she went for an abortion, she met Darius, an Iranian grad student, and she introduces him to Suzanne. 

“The film embraces maternity while insisting that women must have the right to decide when or if to bear children.”

Suzanne returns to her clinic and her children in the south; Pomme, frustrated in her work, goes to Iran with Darius, marries him, and gets pregnant. But when Darius forgets that he was ever a male feminist, Pomme leaves him and returns to France to have the baby in Suzanne’s clinic. Eventually, she lets Darius return to Iran with their infant son, on the condition that he get her pregnant again first. Suzanne marries the pediatrician, now divorced. Back on the road with her freedom songs, the very pregnant Pomme sings, “It’s beautiful to be a balloon,” only to be challenged by a woman in the audience who asks if her lyrics aren’t playing into the hands of the anti-abortion right. Pomme disagrees. This is a strength of One Sings, the Other Doesn’t: that it embraces maternity while insisting that women must have the right to decide when or if to bear children. Rich with life—a birth, a marriage, another birth, and the deepening of Pomme and Suzanne’s friendship—this last section of the film is followed by a brief epilogue in which Pomme and Suzanne, their families, and their friends have a reunion by the sea. The last image is of Suzanne’s daughter (played by Rosalie). She is eighteen, Pomme’s age at the beginning of the film. Looking at her when I first saw the film, in 1977, I remember thinking that she would not have to struggle as hard for equality as Pomme and Suzanne had. Today, I’m not so sure. 

Back in Paris in 1962, One Sings, the Other Doesn’t opened on a nearly life-size black-and-white photograph of a woman draped in black so that one voluptuous breast is exposed, one of a series of images of women that Pauline catches sight of through the window of Jérôme’s atelier. She does not yet have a way to articulate her feminism, but she has an inchoate sense that there is something wrong with these photos, that what they show is not the souls of the women, as the photographer tells her, but rather the anger and depression of the man behind the lens, which he has projected onto his female subjects, and that rather than empathy, they are a form of abuse. Jérôme leads Pauline to Suzanne, but he also gives her the opportunity to explore her uneasy response to his work by asking her to pose for him. Unlike his other subjects, Pauline is no “sad-eyed lady of the lowlands,” to quote a Bob Dylan song not yet written, and her refusal to relinquish her sense of self in front of the camera makes the resulting photos a hilarious and resonant critique of all the others. 

Varda has continued making both fiction and documentary films, along with films that mix the two. Beginning in 2000 with The Gleaners and I, she has toured France, interviewing people who, she explains, are not intimidated by a pleasingly plump old lady with a somewhat comical hairdo and a tiny home-video camera. She has never disguised her formidable intellect or her impeccable sense of film time and space. But the Varda of those late documentaries bears more than a passing resemblance to Pomme, who disarms her audience by coaxing them to laugh with her. And who other than Agnès Varda would have attended the opening of her moving-image installation at the 2003 Venice Biennale dressed as a potato—a pomme de terre?