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One Sings, The Other Doesn't  
Agnes Varda
1977 || 120 mins

In the early 1960s in Paris, two women become friends. Pauline (Valerie Mairesse) is an aspiring young singer from a middle class background. Suzanne (Thérèse Liotard), is a country girl with two illegitimate children and another on the way, whom she is unable to support. Pauline lends Suzanne the money for an illegal abortion, after which, they lose track of each other. Over a decade later, they meet at a women’s lib demonstration. As they renew their friendship, they tell each other of the journeys of self-discovery each has been on in the intervening years.

see also articles on:
Top 10 Films by Agnes Varda || Agnes Varda Profile || French New Wave History || French New Wave Film Guide

The status of women in society had always been a key theme of Agnes Varda’s work but with L’Une chante, l’autre pas it takes centre stage. This touching portrayal of a close female friendship over a fifteen-year period tells, in microcosm, the story of female liberation in France the 1960s and 70s. The two lead characters appear on the surface quite different; Pauline – later nicknamed Pomme, or Apple in English – rebels against her middle class background to become a singer, while Suzanne, from a working-class rural background, frees herself from dependence on men and parents by finding work in a factory and later a family-planning clinic. What they share in common, apart from great strength of character, is a refusal to submit to the then customary view that a woman’s role in society was to act as a homemaker and mother, while remaining subservient to men. Through their personal journeys we get a flavour of the rapid changes going on in society at that time, especially the growing empowerment of women.

Agnes Varda’s association with the feminist movement began on her first trip to the United States in the late sixties where she was exposed to certain theoretical writings. Back home, theory made way for direct action. Varda took part in the protests against the French abortion ban, protests that eventually caused the law to be overturned. The struggle for reproductive rights is also a central and recurring plot element in L’Une chante, l’autre pas. First, we see that the two women, already friends, cement a lifelong bond when Pomme tricks her parents to get the money to pay for an abortion in Switzerland for Suzanne. Some years later Pomme herself travels to Amsterdam for her own abortion. Whilst in Amsterdam she discovers her life's calling as a feminist troubadour when she writes a song in tribute to the other women attending the clinic. Finally, at a protest outside a courtroom where an abortion case is being tried, Suzanne and Pomme meet again after ten years and thus set in motion the second half of the story. Their engagement with this central issue is the tie that binds them and the catalyst through which they forge their identity.

Given its subject matter one might expect the film to be polemical in tone, but the heart-felt performances of the two lead actresses, Varda’s free-flowing direction, the lyrical visuals, Pomme’s musical numbers and the reflective voice-overs ensure our emotional engagement. Unsurprisingly, the male characters are less sympathetic. Jérome, the father of Suzanne’s children and a troubled photographic artist, seems sympathetic towards women, but it is clear -- especially when he attempts unsuccessfully to photograph Pomme -- that he is mainly concerned with his own artistic vision of them. When Pomme poses for him, he rejects her because, as she points out: “I’m not overwhelmed the way you like them. I’m not a victim.” Pomme's Iranian student husband, Darius, appears at first to be supportive of Pomme's ambitions and need for independence, but when he and Pomme return to the country of his birth, he reverts to traditional gender role expectations leading to the break-up their marriage. They agree to a contentious compromise, but then L’Une chante, l’autre pas is not ultimately about the love between men and women but about the friendship between women and their shared experiences. It is less about how men oppress and more about how women are human and equal, and how fighting for this leads to an articulation of one's self, and this can be passed to future generations. The movie ends optimistically as Pomme, now a mother, comes to visit Suzanne, now married happily to a doctor and living in a country house. In the film’s final scene the camera tracks over the contented group, finally resting on Suzanne’s grown-up daughter Marie. “No one thought it would be easier for her,” says Varda on the voice-over. “But perhaps simpler, clearer.”

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