Rhythm and Rights: Agnès Varda’s Feminist Musical “One Sings, the Other Doesn’t”
In 1977, Agnès Varda released her decade-spanning women’s rights musical, One Sings, the Other Doesn’t. Focusing on the friendship between two young women, the film depicts their struggles and evolution over 10 years in the women’s movement, which at the time, strived for access to abortion rights. It is an intimate and politically charged film about the risks and trials of modern life, and should not feel as pertinent as it does.
And yet, in light of the May 25th, 2018 vote to repeal the Irish constitution’s Eighth Amendment, throwing out the country’s long-standing ban on abortions, the film feels particularly relevant. The referendum has not only afforded the people of Ireland freedom over their own bodies but also ignited the inequalities in abortion access across the world. It is a pivotal moment for change that is reflected poetically in Varda’s film.
Set in 1962, in the film’s first chapter, Pauline (Valérie Mairesse) and Suzanne (Thérèse Liotard) strike up a friendship. Suzanne is 22 and already has two children, whereas Pauline is still in high school. Suzanne lives with a man who happens to be married to another woman and who barely makes enough money for them to survive. Faced with the prospect of being pregnant again, Pauline helps Suzanne get enough money for an illegal abortion.
This crucial part in the movie not only defines their friendship but also their struggle. The illegality of their experience establishes their movements, relationships, and careers going forward: Suzanne’s boyfriend kills himself; Pauline’s parents disown her. Years later, we find out that the abortion has also affected Suzanne’s health and fertility — things that would not have happened if she were able to secure one safely and legally.
Ten years after this first meeting, a voiceover on the soundtrack reflects on documentary images of Paris. Women leave the metro and a female voice muses, “Suzanne’s tragedy merged into the anguish Pauline saw on faces everywhere.” In spreading the suffering that Suzanne experienced onto other women, Varda deftly paints this as a universal rather than an individual problem.
What is so integral about these images is not that abortion is so awful that it will bring upon these tragedies, but rather that this sadness is unneeded. This becomes the persistent claim within the film, that restriction on equal rights and freedom of choice are not only a threat to personal happiness but also social health. It is not because of abortion that these tragedies happen, they happen because abortion is shrouded in criminality and shame.
It is now 1972 and the pair reunites at a demonstration. Suzanne works in a family planning organization and Pauline, renamed “Apple,” is a singer. From here on out, the friends will exchange postcards. As the years pass, Pauline falls in love, moves to Iran, and then back to France again. Suzanne works as a single mother and suffers more heartbreak before remarrying.
The beauty of the film lies in the intimacies that Varda draws out of these scenarios. When Apple returns from Iran to give birth, there is a brief scene where she shares some fabric with Suzanne. The pair admire the beautiful cloth, smiling and giggling. It is one my favorite moments in the film.
Other poetic instances come in the form of the naturalistic presence of children and the domesticity of motherhood. Varda, who is best known for her documentary work, brings that spontaneity to the way in which she directs children. Early on, while Suzanne is away, Pauline is in bed with her kids, and the scene, tender and raw, feels like a home movie. The film is also among the few in which you see breastfeeding on screen, banal and beautiful. In the film, it is clear that wanting or loving children is not in conflict with the importance of access to abortion.
But, perhaps most radically, is the brief conversation that Suzanne has with a client at the family planning center. The woman wants an abortion for no specific reason. In stark contrast to the grand gestures of needing access to abortion for health, stability, or economic concerns, this woman has no other motive than the fact that she just does not want a baby, and that’s okay too.
One Sings, the Other Doesn’t was released over 40 years ago and still remains important for many women all over the world. Even in countries like the United States and Canada, many women do not have easy or safe access to abortion. The battle is far from over and films like One Sings, the Other Doesn’t are a reminder that we cannot be complacent.
A 2K digital restoration of Agnès Varda’s One Sings, the Other Doesn’t opens June 1 at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn.