When Agnès Varda’s delightfully gonzo song-studded paean to sisterhood “One Sings, the Other Doesn’t” opened the 1977 New York Film Festival, it landed in the middle of a differently fraught world for women’s rights issues. Abortion, which is a recurring theme in this newly restored and re-released classic, had only been legal in the United States for five years and in Varda’s native France, for just two. The campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment was grinding to a halt in the face of conservative opposition. Female directors were still essentially unheard of in the movie industry. Expectations were high. Varda, a New Wave legend due to 1962’s “Cleo from 5 to 7,” delivered a typically idiosyncratic package of high-minded discourse and free-flowing musical interludes embedded in the story of a years-long friendship between two women. Something about its jolly oddity could have contributed to the movie’s fractured reaction (Vincent Canby and Pauline Kael panned it; Molly Haskell called it “the film we’ve been waiting for!”) and later unavailability.
“One Sings, the Other Doesn’t” is a study in duality that still delivers a clear message about joy and freedom. Its story is a two-parter about a pair of Parisian women who lead highly different yet parallel lives. Once neighbors, they reconnect in 1962 after teenaged Pauline (Valerie Mairesse) stumbles into the photography studio of Jerome (Robert Dadies) and finds out he’s married to her slightly older buddy Suzanne (Therese Liotard), who had to move after having a baby out of wedlock. Jerome is a self-flagellating artist who can’t photograph anything but women looking miserable (“What I’m after is Woman … in her naked truth”) and can’t make enough money to support Suzanne and their two children. Suzanne is trapped by society and family, panicking after discovering she’s pregnant again and not sure how to get an abortion (in the secretive parlance of the time, the coded request was “looking for ‘a good woman’” or “concierge”).
Contrasted to the composed and angular Suzanne, Pauline is a serenely contented optimist and playful rebel who sings in the choir and dreams of a music career. She cons the money for Suzanne’s abortion out of her conservative parents and then blithely moves out once they discover the truth, dropping out of school just months before graduation. Varda shoots Pauline’s domestic scenes with a blithe jocularity that matches the character’s. Even after her father slaps her in a rage, both the movie and the character essentially shrug it off, minimizing his power in a subtly mocking fashion.
After an unexpected yet unsurprising tragedy, the two women have separated again. Pauline starts her music career as backup doo-wop singer for a hilariously awful rockabilly band while Suzanne moves back to her family farm, where her mother refers to her children only as “your bastards.” They communicate in snapshot fashion via postcards, a stuttering start-stop narrative device that mirrors Varda’s somewhat herky-jerk approach to the movie’s storyline.
When the women reconnect, it’s ten years later, and the battle for abortion rights in Catholic France is in full swing. Suzanne, now an activist with a Planned Parenthood-like organization, is at a protest for reforming the abortion laws. Pauline has reconstituted herself as “Apple,” a hippie-ish singer whose songs about liberation and the beauty of womanhood are more goofy celebrations than protest anthems. This second section of the movie is its true heart, as we are filled in on both women’s backstories and chart their forward progress in a chaotic time.
Varda fills in the intervening years at an unhurried pace that fits the performers’ unaffected performances and her languorous visual scheme, which is frequently given over to briefly constructed tableaus or long winding music numbers with Pauline and her flower-power agit-prop band, The Orchids (a typical lyric: “When you live in the atomic age, you must educate the chromosomes”). But the stories all contain some nod to the fight for equality. Pauline’s tale about meeting her current beau, Darius (Ali Rafie), takes the movie to Amsterdam where she was accompanying a group of French women who had to leave the country to get abortions. Alongside the historically interesting details of the trip itself, Varda inserts one of the movie’s larger musical numbers, with Pauline/Apple performing a woozily happy number on a canal boat tour. Suzanne’s backstory is less dramatic but a struggle nonetheless, as she educates herself to get a job and out from under her parents’ disapproving eyes.
Even when Pauline darts off to Darius’s native Iran—a gorgeously-shot segment whose heartache beauty not only mirrors that of Suzanne’s move to France’s sunnier south but subverts Pauline’s Orientalist fantasy—the women remain bonded. As Pauline tries to explain to Darius, “with her, it’s like love without the headaches… Suzanne and I fit.” That link remains tight even in the movie’s latter sequences, when Pauline goes bombing around France with her feminist Merry Pranksters band The Orchids, performing surrealist comic song-skits in tiny villages to happily baffled townspeople and Suzanne settles down to a more bourgeois, yet still politically active, family life.
The gypsy feminism of “One Sings, the Other Doesn’t” never tries to interrogate the friendship of these women or invent some moment of conflict. They’re too busy trying to keep some semblance of agency in their lives, whether it’s Pauline pushing back against Darius’ patriarchal tendencies or Suzanne trying to decide if she needs or even wants a man in her life. Varda is happier staging her giddy dream-folk music numbers whose optimistic messages are wrapped in sweet, sweet harmonies. It’s a weird yet undeniable delight. [A]