A thoroughly unique feminist musical from Agnes Varda

With the ongoing attack on reproductive rights in the news and in our states, it is unusual yet refreshing to see a world in which women’s choices are celebrated and abortion is viewed as a healthy option (not something to be regretted later). But this is the world Agnes Varda creates in her 1977 work One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, a portrait of a long-lasting friendship between two very different women.

Pomme (Valérie Mairesse), the younger, dreamy one, is an aspiring musician who writes songs about motherhood and being a woman. Suzanne (Thérèse Liotard) is slightly older, a mother of two at 22. Through parallel, epistolary storytelling, the young women narrate events, updating each other — and sometimes narration is provided by Varda.

Abortion is an occurrence in both of their lives. Suzanne has one in France in the early ‘60s, when it is illegal. Pomme takes a trip to Amsterdam for hers closer to the beginning of the new decade, reveling in her time with fellow patients. Suzanne and Pomme find each other after a ten year separation, attending a protest during the criminal trial of a 16-year-old abortion patient. In the two, Varda contrasts the lengths women will go to for reproductive choice.

As in her earlier film, Le Bonheur, the French director here explores gender roles and expectations within marriage. After Pomme falls for Iranian citizen Darius (Ali Rafie) and marries him in his home country, she realizes he expects her to take on dull, domestic tasks; she complains to Suzanne that her husband, who appeared an open-minded feminist in France, is no such thing. The woman who once sang “My Body Is Mine” entered into the institution of marriage expecting different results.

One Sings, the Other Doesn’t is a musical in that songs are sung at various points of the film, but it doesn’t fall under the full conventions of the genre. There is little choreography, and the musical numbers are mostly performed by Pomme and her band in front of audiences. The songs aren’t presented as stream-of-consciousness or furthering a dialogue between characters; thus, it plays more as a movie with original music that fits thematically.

The 1977 film seems an extremely personal work for the director, who included her children in the cast. The closing shot of One Sings, the Other Doesn’t is of her daughter Rosalie, as the narrator/Varda speaks of hope for future generations of women. This Criterion package was already in the works before Varda’s death in March, but its release is perfectly timed for us to remember her spirit and unique vision.

The Criterion Blu-ray release of One Sings, the Other Doesn’t includes:

  • A 2K digital restoration overseen by Varda and cinematographer Charlie Van Damme.
  • Réponses de femmes (1975): Varda’s short film comments on gender, motherhood, and the use of women’s bodies to sell products, among other topics. Most of the ideas fall under themes of second wave feminism.
  • Plaisir d’Amour en Iran (1976): Short made by Varda while filming abroad in Iran for One Sings, the Other Doesn’t. Erotic narration plays over glimpses of temple architecture, and pieces of Persian art are analyzed. The short film also includes a flirtatious moment between Pomme and Darius.
  • Women Are Naturally Creative: Agnes Varda (1977): This documentary from Katja Raganelli goes behind the scenes of the last day of filming for One Sings, the Other Doesn’t. Varda discusses her filmmaking process and talks about her previous works. Actresses Mairesse and Liotard speak about the dearth of dimensional roles for women in French film at the time, and how they each relished the opportunity to participate in Varda’s film.
  • Excerpts from the original 1977 press book: Lyrics and music to some of the music, a letter from the director titled, “One Sings, the Other Doesn’t Is Me,” and more…
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