One Sings, the Other Doesn’t …and you’ll never guess which one’s which! Just kidding, this film’s many, many musical performances make it extremely obvious. Agnès Varda’s eighth feature is about the friendship between two women who could otherwise be given a number of labels. That Varda tells us (quite literally, she’s the film’s narrator) that the only difference between them that matters is singing is demonstrative of the movie’s somewhat subtle approach to being a women’s liberation story. So, living in not-so-subtle times, does One Sings, the Other Doesn’t still work?
A 17-year-old schoolgirl, Pauline (Valérie Mairesse), wanders into a gallery in Paris in 1962 because she recognizes one of the women in the photos as Suzanne (Thérèse Liotard), an old friend she had fell out of touch with. The photographer, Jérôme (Robert Dadiès), tells Pauline that Suzanne is his partner and they have two kids, though he is married to another woman. He tells her where to find Suzanne and soon Pauline drops in for a visit. The 22-year-old Suzanne is having a rough go of it: Jérôme isn’t making much money, she can’t afford to work, and she’s overwhelmed taking care of the kids. She also has just learned she’s pregnant again and can’t imagine how to look after another baby. So Pauline tells her parents she wants to go on a school trip to get enough money so that Suzanne can travel to Switzerland to get an abortion. While she’s away, Pauline looks after the kids. When Pauline returns to her home, her parents are livid, having discovered her lie. Pauline decides move out, drop out of school, and become a singer. Meanwhile, Jerôme, having lost all confidence as a photographer, hangs himself. With nowhere else to go, Suzanne moves back into the country with her kids, where she lives on her parents farm, who treat her badly for having children out of marriage.
Ten years later, the two women have a chance encounter again at a protest outside of an abortion trial. Pauline now goes by Apple and sings in a feminist folk group. She’s fallen in love with Darius (Ali Rafie), an Iranian man she met in Amsterdam while she was there with a group of women getting abortions. Suzanne taught herself how to type and eventually found work and was able to move her family away from her terrible parents. Now she runs a family planning clinic she opened next to a swimming pool. The two women are thrilled to see each other again and promise to stay in touch, which they do through postcards and the occasional visit over the next few years. Apple struggles balancing her artistic ambitions with her romance with Darius, especially when he wants to move them back to his home in Iran. Suzanne is content raising her children, but does have a few affairs as she struggles with dating given her social status.
There aren’t really outright villains in One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, which makes it feel unique in its genre. You’d think Jérôme or his wife would maybe be cast in a bad light, but Jérôme ends up just being pathetic and his wife doesn’t even have any lines. Instead, the opposition the two main characters face is society. Both Apple and Suzanne are rejected by their families for choices they made, both struggle to find work, and, of course, both have their lives changed when they are forced to leave the country to have abortions. This is a fairly matter-of-fact story about the real struggles lots of women have and, sadly, continue to face.
In 1971, Agnès Varda was one of the 343 women who signed the “Manifesto of the 343,” a petition admitting they had an illegal abortion in France. This manifesto was important in paving the way for abortion to be legalized by 1975. Unlike in the United States, France has slowly liberalized access to abortion over the decades since then, recently extending the limit to 14 weeks after conception in February of this year. So there’s a chance Varda made One Sings, the Other Doesn’t in a hopeful mood. At the very least, she’s being honest and reflective. At the end of the movie, Suzanne’s daughter Marie, now 17 herself, is played by Rosalie Varda-Demy, Varda’s daughter. As the last shot of the movie lingers on her, Varda explains, “No one thought it would be easier for her, but perhaps simpler and clearer…”