Photographs abound in Agnès Varda’s One Sings, the Other Doesn’t. They pop up with the opening credits and predate the encounter between 17-year-old Pauline (Valérie Mairesse) and photographer Jérôme (Robert Dadiès); they go on to document the friendship between the teenage girl and Jérôme’s girlfriend, 22-year-old Suzanne (Thérèse Liotard); and they resurface at the end, when the two girls meet again for a summer holiday of Bergman-esque peace after years spent apart.
They are, for the most part, portraits of women, sometimes naked but always unmistakably black and white—colors which Charles Van Damme’s cinematography blends into a fitting, melancholic blue. “These women are sad,” remarks Pauline as she steps foot into Jérôme’s studio. It is a point she brings up again when he later asks her to strip and pose for him, only to give up and complain she’s “refusing to be real.” Arms akimbo and chest puffed out, a defiant swagger that feels miles away from the sad-looking creatures adorning his studio like silent trophies, she shakes her head. “I’m no victim, not even for a photo.”
I’ve started writing about One Sings, the Other Doesn’t by talking about its near omnipresent use of photographs because of this pivotal juncture. Should there be a tagline for Varda’s 1977 film, Pauline's snappy reply would probably be it. One Sings, The Other Doesn’t—a work Varda credited to “all women movements and groups”—is a film concerned with the struggle for representation. It zeroes in on the lives of two girls, Pauline and Suzanne, as they struggle to vindicate a voice and space over and against those they have been pigeonholed into by a male-dominated world. And while Varda’s feature has often been billed as a women’s rights musical—a somewhat apt definition, if anything for the number of songs dispersed throughout—it is here, during a confrontation between a frustrated male photographer and his stubborn female subject, that this conflict begins.
One Sing, the Other Doesn’t unfolds as a Bildungsroman of sorts. It chronicles a little over a decade in the lives of Pauline and Suzanne, first united and later pulled apart by two tragedies. Once a next-door neighbor of Pauline’s, Suzanne has moved in with Jérôme and given birth to his two kids, Marie and Mathieu. Yet, unbeknownst to the man, she is already pregnant with a third one. Not that the couple has the resources needed for all the kids: Jérôme barely makes enough to survive by himself, let alone help stay-at-home Suzanne raise another kid. Moved by her friend’s bleak prospects, Pauline lends Suzanne some money for her to travel to Switzerland and abort, but while the bond between the two girls grows stronger after the ordeal, Jérôme succumbs to depression, and eventually hangs himself, forcing penniless and heartbroken Suzanne to return with her children to her parents’ farm. By the time the two meet up again, ten years have gone by: Suzanne is now working for a family planning center, and Pauline (now nicknamed Apple) is touring the country with a female-only band and a long-haired Iranian boyfriend, Darius (Ali Rafie), dancing and singing her way through the 1970s pro-choice movement, with an endearing carefree aura caught halfway between Bob Dylan and Greta Gerwig.
From here on, One Sing, The Other Doesn’t turns into an imaginary dialogue between the two young women, a correspondence punctuated by postcards they exchange to update each other on past antics and present-day adventures. To be sure, at least as far as the anecdotes go, Suzanne’s homely life is no match for Pauline/Apple’s exotic wanderlust: smitten with Darius and frustrated after failing to obtain funding for a new art project, Pauline decides to follow him to Iran, where they marry, and she gets pregnant with their first child. While Suzanne writes Pauline about her single mother’s life, Pauline sends her friend telegram-like postcards from around the world. It’s a conversation that spans across time and space; that it nonetheless feels like an uninterrupted dialogue, “a seamless air-mail bridge,” speaks volumes of Varda’s astounding writing skills. There are moments when, miles apart, the two women engage in a near-telepathic dialogue, with Varda filming them perform the same actions—as when they silently talk to each other while preparing dinner, Suzanne for her two hungry kids, Pauline for her besotted Darius. And even when the distance gets larger, the conversation lives on. Stranded in Iran, Pauline complains she feels as though she’s become a postcard herself; among those she later sends Suzanne, there is one featuring a stunning mosque that looks shot from Pauline’s point of view only a few moments prior. But the conversation extends far beyond mundane one-liners, and when the postcards run out of space, Varda’s script spills over them, and the dialogue reaches new depths.
Writing from Darius’s village, Pauline claims she is suddenly more attuned to her body: it is here, among veiled women, that she feels “more naked” and “more herself” than ever before. That Varda would set her awakening in conservative Iran is eye-opening. The international setting certainly adds a certain ecumenical scope to One Sings, The Other Doesn’t, but the dichotomy of secular France vs. religious Iran never takes on a polemical tone; the comparison serves more as a synecdoche of sorts (the plight of one woman is the plight of all), the same way Suzanne’s struggle to abort in 1960s France (a time when the practice was still illegal) had awaken Pauline to the universality of her friend’s tragedy.
It is this sense of communal struggle that ensures none of this feels preachy. Yes, One Sings, the Other Doesn’t is resolutely political in its attempt to shed light on women struggling for greater rights at a pivotal historical juncture, but even when the political subtext becomes explicit, Varda always casts Suzanne and Pauline’s battles in a deeply empathetic light. Pauline/Apple may well rally the crowd chanting “Friedrich Engels once said it / In today’s families / The bourgeois is the man / The proletarian is the woman,” but her street performances always exude a certain playfulness reminiscent of Giulietta Masina in Fellini’s La strada (1954), or the irreverent political satire of Nanni Moretti’s feature debut, I Am Self Sufficient (1976). Which does not mean the battles (or the songs) are not serious—only that they bestow a certain irony and empathy that makes their fight relatable to everyone, regardless of gender or age. After all, that’s the purposely open-ended question Varda leaves us with: could Suzanne and Pauline’s optimistic fight help others, too?
I watched One Sings, the Other Doesn’t after a long overdue catch-up with Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women, and for a while, hearing Pauline/Apple inviting her audience to “educate [kids] before they become men,” my memory was jolted back to Annette Bening’s single-mother quest to help her only child grow into “a good person.” The same irony that permeated Mills’ coming-of-age feature lingers in Varda’s work. Suzanne’s teenage kids regurgitate concepts they probably overheard from the women around them, but may not have fully assimilated: in a delightful exchange right outside school, 13-year-old Marie (Dominique Ducros) describes her mother Suzanne’s wedding to a schoolmate as “no bourgeois frills […] we listened to records and played Scrabble.” And while men are certainly present in Pauline and Suzanne’s lives, they are often pushed to their margins—their self-proclaimed feminism exposed as ill-disguised machismo (as it is for Darius), their presence oftentimes reduced to flickering extras with interchangeable names.
By the time Suzanne and Pauline meet up for a final rendezvous, the year is 1976—the two friends have rented a holiday house, and brought old photographs with them. Not a few, but hundreds. Pasted all around the walls, furniture, windows, they are the photos of the sad-looking women shot by Jérôme, plus a few more recent additions: postcards from Iran, pictures of Darius, and posters of Apple’s band. I wonder whether 31-year-old Pauline looked at those women the same way she did at seventeen inside Jérôme’s studio, whether she still thought of them as “overwhelmed” and unbearably fragile. But there is a powerful sense of optimism that lingers all around those photos, those faces, those idyllic, long holiday nights spent together in the company of other women, men and kids. Jérôme was after women “in their naked truth,” but that truth reeked of prison and decay—a claustrophobic understanding of women as silent, vulnerable creatures to be marveled at. Varda’s women do the opposite. One Sings, the Other Doesn’t is still a portrait, but one of two extraordinary women who, markedly different as they may be, both fought for the same right: “to gain the happiness of being a woman.”