I recently obtained myself a MUBI account, not because I really need another venue to stream movies from, but mostly because I caught wind of an ultra rare Agnes Varda film being offered from the seventies. Knowing that I adore her work, I decided at 2.91 a month MUBI was more than well worth my time. However, this post is not intended to hype MUBI, I do enough of that for Criterion as it stands. I do not mind in the slightest hyping Agnes Varda, whose work has always challenged, enlivened and generally enriched my understanding of cinema, this her "musical" focusing on two women's experiences during the tumultuous rise and fall of women's liberation as it relates both uniquely to France, as well as how it extends to spaces one does not immediately think of when discussing women's issues in the 1970's. Indeed, the very nature and subject manner of this film are well within my interests and, again, having Agnes Varda helm the filmmaking only verified that I would be taken a back in wonder by all it had to offer. Then the magical moment involving the "Papa Engels" song happened and I came to realize I was consuming what might well be the greatest offering in French cinema for all of the 70's. Indeed, this film exists in the middle of two cinematic bookends by great French male filmmakers in Godard's Weekend from 1967 and Truffaut's absurdly underrated The Last Metro from 1980. Here with one master stroke, Varda is able to create a work that cements her place in the highest of rungs for French filmmaking and deservedly so, because this list is often invaded by the greats of The French New Wave, which deserve praise, but would also be nothing without Varda's preliminary steps in the movement, as well as her continued presence in the world of filmmaking. Rocking the same excellent haircut for the entirety of her career, Varda is the definition of an auteur and a reminder of the very real presence a woman and can should be afforded in the world of filmmaking, just in the same way that there would be no French New Wave without Varda, the cinematic perfection that is a work like Zero Dark Thirty would not evoke the commentary and feminist undertones it does today, without Varda's willingness to go all out in her own political, social and personal beliefs. Sure the singing is a bit silly, but the subject matter is far too serious to be easily dismissed.
One Sings, the Other Doesn't focuses on the relationship of two women during the world of seventies counterculture. The first girl, Pauline (Valerie Mairesse) the young wide-eyed idealism of France with her endearing nickname Apple, her wild red hair and general curiosity about all things against the norm, she exists purely with the hopes of making it as a singer. Stumbling into an artist's shop, Pauline notices a photograph of one of her former neighbors from her youth. The woman, Suzanne (Therese Liotard) is a mother stuck in a less than thrilling marriage, captured in photographs by her lover Jerome (Robert Dadies). Pauline asks Jerome if it would be possible to meet Suzanne, to which he sees no problem. The two immediatley form a deep bond between one another, sharing in the unique troubles that faced women of the time, Pauline dealing with the oppressive expectations of her parents who want her to succeed in things that are decidedly of the feminine realm, while Suzanne stumbles through the threats of yet another child on her freedom. When Pauline offers to accrue the necessary funds to afford Suzanne and abortion, Suzanne comes to realize that the bond between the two is of the deepest level of friendship, so much so that when Pauline is kicked out of her home for her choices, she immediately moves in with Suzanne and Jerome. This choice, apparently leads to Jerome going into a severe bout of depression and eventual suicide and act that leads to the first splitting apart of Pauline and Suzanne, not out of anger, but economic necessity. During this time, Suzanne creates a space for herself in the family planning world of social work, dealing with both rewarding and frustrating cases of introducing women to the liberating benefits of the pill. Meanwhile, Pauline, fully appropriating her Apple identity, takes up a life as a folk singer, traveling about France, Amsterdam and even Iran singing songs on issues of abortion, domesticity and the wonders of communism, meeting a man named Darius (Ali Rafie) along the way, whose faux-feminist politics trap her into a marriage and role of motherhood she immediately regrets. Suzanne finds her own relationship which is one of comfort and complacency, only seeking solace in her communication with Pauline. The two continue to exchange letters and occasionally meeting up speaking to the woes of feminine oppression, while expanding their own friendship to a level of almost romantic intimacy. The two women's lives intersect and move apart in unique ways, always, however, sharing in the bond of womanhood that transcends all the absurdity of the world they face.
So it is rather clear that this film has open feminist politics in its frank discussions of abortion, family planning, domestic oppression and issues of property. These things alone could make Varda's One Sings, the Other Doesn't a work in feminist filmmaking on level with Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, which is by all accounts the most feminist of films to date. Varda, however, is not simply concerned with verbally affirming a narrative of feminist politics, she accepts that individuals like Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan have already done so by the time her film emerges. Instead, Varda wants to specifically consider how such rhetoric and ideals can invade and influence the space of filmmaking. The very title One Sings, the Other Doesn't considers how silencing affects certain female bodies, Varda affirming that Suzanne through her forced life in domesticity is incapable (either by choice or limitations) of singing out, therefore, while Pauline has not necessarily experienced the same types of domestic oppression, nonetheless, shares in the larger oppression of womanhood, thus singing about the woes of domestic depression, in her previously mentioned song Papa Engels. In this way, Pauline becomes a voice for the feminist movement, one that is often wily, but always astute. Suzanne, however, is not completely at a loss in activism, wherein Pauline speaks, Suzanne acts. Involved heavily in what could be seen as the French equivalent of Planned Parenthood, Suzanne is giving escape to woman who have found themselves trapped into unplanned pregnancies or simply want to avoid the danger of pregnancy in their youth. What Varda does brilliantly in the film, is provide both verbal and physical activism the same degree of validity, by suggesting that Pauline and Suzanne are one in the same, both moving throughout their lives with a constant reminder that each decision speaks to their larger endeavors of feminist activism. By the time the two are shown in the closing moments of the film, it is suggested through a brilliant panning circle that the two are at the very least sharing the same space, if not outright the same person within the filmic world of One Sings, the Other Doesn't. I would also posit given Varda's concern for the types of activism that an appropriate alternative title for this film could have ben One Sings, the Other Performs.
Key Scene: While I am a fan of the Papa Engels song, I also found the abortus song on the boat to be clever and politically profound.
This is currently only available to view on MUBI. Get the seven day free trail or just get an account, either way it is worth it for this rarified cinematic gem.