The film was originally called Women and Children First and had been scripted to take place entirely in 1962, when the two heroines, Suzanne and Pomme, were fifteen years old. But director Agnès Varda ended up abandoning that earlier version because she felt it had fallen into the trap of being what she called a “report-on-what’s going-wrong-for-women-with-men-children-and-society.” Instead she wanted to focus on how women she knew in the feminist movement were “on the move towards living well,” giving the film a lighter, more humorous tone.
Before making this film, Agnès Varda had long been a vocal participant in the women’s movement in France. She was one of the signatories of the Manifesto of the 343 in 1971, a document in which 343 prominent women—including actor Catherine Deneuve and writer Simone de Beauvoir—publicly declared, at risk of criminal prosecution, that they had obtained illegal abortions. Varda was also involved with a group that organized trips to Holland for French women seeking abortions, like the one that Pomme takes to Amsterdam.
The rally that reunites the two protagonists after a decade of estrangement is inspired by the Bobigny trial of 1972, in which a woman was charged with procuring an illegal abortion for her teenage daughter, who was the victim of a rape. Gisèle Halimi, the real-life defense lawyer in the trial, makes a cameo in the scenes of protest outside the courthouse.
Varda’s two children have roles in the film. Rosalie Varda appears in its closing shot as Suzanne’s daughter. Varda included a dedication to her at the end of the opening credits. The director’s son, Mathieu Demy, is featured as the child of a hitchhiker musician played by the movie’s music arranger, François Wertheimer.
Varda can be heard in the film’s narration. She had begun using voice-over as a stylistic device just the year before, in Daguerrotypes, a documentary she made while pregnant with Mathieu. Varda felt it was important that she be the one to perform the voice-over in the film, as a way of foregrounding how much she had been “involved in the story of women and in women’s laws and women’s images.”
Both of the two lead actresses found that the alteration of their physical appearance helped them find their characters. In order to play Suzanne at the age of thirty, Thérèse Liotard agreed to cut her hair shorter. It took three tries at the hairdresser before Varda approved of her look. To play the pregnant Pomme, Valerie Mairesse took to wearing her prosthetic belly out to restaurants and shops, which instantly taught her how to walk slower and breathe differently.
Mairesse hesitated before accepting the role. In the end it was her father, a devoted fan of Varda’s films, who pushed her to leave her gig at a café-theater to be in the movie.
One constant throughout Varda’s work is her blending of narrative and nonfiction elements. For this film, Varda aimed to create a combination of dream and documentary, and one of the ways she achieved that effect was by mixing “songs that dreamily articulate feminist thoughts” with images of real women at a shelter.
Nurith Aviv, who worked as camera operator on One Sings, became the first woman to be recognized as a director of photography by France’s Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée in 1975.
The prolific poster artist Michel Landi, who had designed the iconic one-sheet for the Steve McQueen movie Bullitt in 1968, illustrated the poster for One Sings.