There’s a vitality outside time about Agnès Varda. A rush of love erupted on social media when she arrived at the last Oscars in silk pajamas; the oldest nominee in history at 89 (she turned ninety on Wednesday), Varda was one of the few women directors shortlisted for a trophy. She was up for Best Documentary Feature for Faces Places (2017), her breezy roam through rural France in which she and her co-director, thirtysomething street artist JR, create larger-than-life portraits of locals. A key creative force of the French New Wave with her politically conscious, stylistically inventive films like Cleo From 5 to 7 (1962), the Belgian-born auteur is being this widely celebrated only belatedly, as younger generations rectify the sidelining from history of cinema’s great female talents. She was also the recipient, in 2017, of an Honorary Academy Award — and the biggest kick of it all was that she could hardly care less about such red carpet recognition. She started out a renegade, and has stayed one. As Hollywood fears aging, Varda and her whimsical energy convey loud and clear that she understands it as a mere trick of the mind. This free-spirited philosophy infuses her recently remastered One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977). Made against the backdrop of the Women’s Movement in France, it advocates for reproductive rights and fulfillment in employment beyond marital domesticity — second-wave feminist concerns that, as last week’s abortion referendum in Ireland reminded us, are an ongoing battle. The movie’s audacious irreverence and playful, musical form feel as fresh as ever, as does its call to women to embrace unfettered self-expression by any unconventional means.
“Take the road as it comes/Invent everything from A to Z/And don’t be afraid.” The lines are sung by Pauline (Valérie Mairesse, with sass to burn), who at seventeen breaks with her parents and quits school to become a traveling folk singer. She forges a friendship with 22-year-old Suzanne (Thérèse Liotard) — a bond sealed through strife. Pauline helps the mother-of-two procure an abortion, then discovers the body of Suzanne’s lover Jerome (Robert Dadies), a struggling, already-married photographer, when he commits suicide. “I feel a hundred,” Suzanne says of the exhaustion of getting by. It’s not a weariness that lasts. In this ode to the sustenance of female support networks and the vibrancy of constantly transforming one’s life through radical problem-solving, the pair of friends never stay stuck for long. Suzanne recovers at her parents’ farm, and, after May ’68, starts a family planning center — empowering others as part of the world’s “family of women.” Pauline, later known as Pomme (even names are easily reinvented here), travels to Iran and has a baby with her partner Darius (Ali Rafie); in a backslide to more patriarchal values, he starts to expect dinner on the table, and she’s compelled to move on.
One Sings, the Other Doesn’t: It has to be one of the more perfect movie titles out there. A balance of opposites, of a yin and a yang, it captures the reality that these very different women are in fact alike. The film spans fourteen years, switching back and forth between their stories. Pauline and Suzanne both fight for self-fulfillment, living divergent lives and usually meeting only at times of tragedy or monumental change, but exchanging letters in between. Their bond is described as “an imaginary dialogue punctuated with postcards” — a poetic evocation of just how emotionally sustaining such a connection can be even from a distance. The pair’s buoyant approach to life has frequently been met with reactive skepticism by (often male) critics. Vincent Canby wrote in the New York Times that he didn’t “believe in this friendship,” or “in the sunny resolution to the various problems.” But crucially, their optimistic zeal does not minimize the psychological impact of their traumas and setbacks. Economic hardship is pushed to the fore; Jerome’s suicide reverberates for years; and the women are emotionally taxed by abortion (Pomme also terminates a pregnancy, in Amsterdam).
Darius, fed up with Pomme’s wild schemes, exclaims sardonically: “Another fringe idea! It’s utopian!” Detractors might well identify with him — but revolutionary thinkers really do change the world. The two women first meet protesting the criminalization of abortion outside a girl’s trial, where Pomme is singing her pithy lyrics in the name of activism: “Biology’s not fate/The doc’s laws are out of date/My body is mine.” As terrifyingly self-governing as these women may seem to some, letting go and moving on when they must, they also exhibit profound empathy, refusing to reject the men around them wholesale for their weaknesses. Pomme calls out Jerome for relishing women’s victimhood in his photography, but along with Suzanne keeps his vulnerable side fond in her memory. Pomme and Darius forge a novel arrangement over childcare and remain friends to the end. The film is a breath of fresh air for simultaneously channeling radical attitudes and evading wallowing in bitter or toxic scenarios. In their various bids for freedom, Varda’s women are not punished.
One Sings, the Other Doesn’t
Written and directed by Agnès Varda
Opens June 1, BAMcinématek
Click here to sign up for our weekly film and TV newsletter.