“I wish you were with me in this lousy truck with the girls I met in ’68. They sing on the street and are great! We got plans!” writes one friend to another in Agnès Varda’s 1977 musical One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (L’une Chante, L’autre Pas). Such exclamations capture both the joie de vivre of 1970s French feminism and the spirit that buoys this film, an homage to the era if there ever was one.
Back on the big screen this week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with a digital restoration from the original negative, the felicitous story follows the friendship of two unlikely sisters-in-arms: Suzanne (Thérèse Liotard), a struggling mother of two, and Pauline (Valérie Mairesse), a high-schooler with a zest for song and a precocious political consciousness. Five years her friend and neighbor’s junior, Pauline helps Suzanne attain an abortion abroad after learning that she is expecting a third child by the same man as her first two, a photographer who makes mopey black-and-white portraits of nude women (including Pauline and Suzanne).
As much as One Sings resonates as a pro-choice anthem indebted to the boho ethos of its time and place, what feels just as daring is its depiction of a sororité that bridges gulfs in age, class, and lifestyle — an allegiance fortified by revolutionary zeal under renewed debate some 50 years later. But the role of women within the May 1968 uprising — and the extent to which it has been concealed — has long been a topic of scrutiny. “One has scarcely the time to experience an event as important,” wrote Marguerite Duras, “before men begin to speak out … to speak alone and for everyone else, on behalf of everyone else, as they put it. They immediately forced women to … keep silent.”
At the front lines of women’s rights efforts from the start, Varda kept her mouth open wide — as do the femmes that fill One Sings with such ardent, if awkwardly earnest, verses. Ditching her bougie folks for the glamour of crooning in the countryside, cherubic Pauline becomes the feisty “Pomme,” leading a pack of flower children in harmonious public spectacle (some better received than others). Many today might balk at the Marlo-Thomasy tweeness of it all, but the film’s unabashed sincerity also begets true charm. “Not a nanny, not a granny, not a fanny,” Pomme’s quartet sings in peasant dresses before a blank-faced crowd. “I’m woman! I’m me!”
To bridge the elisions in the friends’ chronology, Varda’s placid voiceover recounts the in-between. “The tragedy made the girls close friends,” we learn of Suzanne’s common-law husband’s suicide, “and suddenly separated them.” Ten years later, Suzanne runs into Pomme at a rally outside of a courthouse where an abortion trial is underway. “I know when I want to have my young,” chants the latter in colored beads beside a pregnant harmonica player. “To be round or flat! The choice is mine!”
Perhaps the most laughable lyrics roll in when Pomme becomes marooned in the Netherlands, where she has gone to have an abortion herself. Singing with a diaspora of desperate women while touring the canals, she intones: “Sliding under the Amsterdam bridges, on a Dutch sightseeing boat, go the knocked up fucked-up ladies, the damsels and mam’selles afloat!” Despite the gravity of the situation, the languid pace and scenery prompt possible envy from anyone who has ever sat at a Planned Parenthood.
The New York Times’s J. Hoberman recently wrote that “One Sings is so utopian that it might have taken its title from [Varda’s] earlier feature, Le Bonheur (Happiness).” Still, there’s something to be said for a feminist film as jubilant as it is justice-forward, where the female leads never cave to any trace of competition. “With her, it’s like love without the headaches,” Pomme says of Suzanne to Darius (Ali Rafie), her Iranian lover whose grooviness is short-lived. To Hoberman’s point, even after the couple marries and divorces, they work out an improbably equitable plan to sort out the aftermath.
“I wanted to be a witness to these struggles, demonstrations, and other actions that often took place in a cheerful atmosphere and a spirit of positive communication, with men as well as women,” Varda recently explained. One Sings was critiqued in 1977 for being, in her own words, “too nuanced, not-anti-men enough,” and that makes sense. None of the men featured are bona fide bad guys — and several embrace a progressive ethos that makes male #MeToo-ing seem hardly outré.
In this way, One Sings was at once ahead of its time and yet remains inherently tied to a history we have yet to fully grasp. As argued by Keith A. Reader and Khursheed Wadia in Women and the Events of May ’68, “[O]ne of the paradoxes … is that despite the fact that women were ignored, feminism was to emerge as the most active and imaginative of radical and subversive ideological forms; one which was to influence if not change the lives of thousands of French women.” Too dreamy to be polemical, One Sings lacks the militancy many might link with second wave feminism. But for this very reason the film might be all the more relevant to reconsider in a time when feminist infighting is all too common.
“True they were different,” Varda says in voiceover during the long take that concludes her film, the two women lounging in earth-tone tunics by the lake. “One sang, the other didn’t. They’d fought to gain the happiness of being a woman. Maybe their optimism could help others.” Here the camera pans right to land on Marie, Suzanne’s eldest, played by the director’s daughter, Rosalie, who was 18 at the time.
Fifty years later, Rosalie Varda would go on to pay tribute to her mother in directing Faces Places (Visages Villages), a documentary trailing the filmmaker and artist JR as they traveled around rural France taking pictures of ordinary people. “I’m not a mystic. I’m down to earth,” Varda, then 88, tells her companion as she stares out patiently at the long road ahead.
One Sings, the Other Doesn’t runs through June 8 in a new 2K digital restoration at BAMcinématek (30 Lafayette Avenue, Fort Greene, Brooklyn). It can also be streamed, unrestored, via the MUBI movie package on Amazon Prime.