In the opening scene of One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, 17-year-old Pauline (Valérie Mairesse) stops in a photography studio displaying portraits of various women. Noting the solemn expressions on their faces, she describes them as “sad.” This is partly a critique, but mostly a personal mission statement. Pauline is already determined to chart a nontraditional path for herself, one that will look nothing like the staid, bourgeois existence of her father and mother (the latter of whom could be in one of those portraits).
In fact, Pauline begins to chart her path by offering one to Suzanne (Thérèse Liotard), the 22-year-old mother of the photographer’s two children. Stuck in an apartment with the kids while he works on his art (for little pay), Suzanne is on the edge of despair. When she discovers she’s pregnant again, she nearly teeters over. It’s then that Pauline concocts a scheme to procure an abortion for Suzanne, which marks the beginning of an intense and lengthy friendship.
One Sings, the Other Doesn’t is about how Pauline at once has everything figured out, and has much to learn. Written and directed by Agnes Varda, this is one of her more feminist works, yet its approach is hardly polemical. No matter the larger political implications of the narrative—including a scene at a demonstration for women’s reproductive rights—Varda always keeps the focus on these two friends, worrying less about what Pauline in particular wants to say and instead being true to their larger experiences. The movie is a portrait of its own, then, though one that makes room for both the beautiful and the sad.
The movie is a portrait of its own, one that makes room for both the beautiful and the sad.
Indeed, photography is a continual visual motif. The opening credits include a number of the portraits taken by Jerome (Robert Dadiès), while Pauline eventually has her own portrait taken, to unsatisfying results. (Her confrontational posture doesn’t fit Jerome’s aesthetic.) Later, during a sequence set at a farm, Varda does something subtle and strange with the miserable wife of a farmer: she stands still in the frame, as if posing for her own portrait. There are also positive associations with photography, as when a later love interest of Suzanne’s affectionately takes snapshots of her, or when Varda’s own camera admiringly pans across the faces of women sitting in solidarity in a cafe. And then there is the lovely touch of having Jerome’s photos reappear in the final sequence, amidst others that Suzanne has gathered over the years.
In those years, Suzanne and Pauline experience much change: the deaths of loved ones, the growth of children, marriages, and more pregnancies. Always the free spirit, Pauline spends much of her time with a band of musical vagabonds, performing feminist theatrical pieces across the French countryside. She keeps in touch with Suzanne via postcard, as Suzanne eventually settles in as a single mother and the head of a family planning clinic. The postcard device may sound strained, but in actuality—especially in the way it allows us to hear their first-person thoughts in voiceover—it comes across as intimate.
It’s worth noting that One Sings, the Other Doesn’t also verges on becoming a musical, particularly during a sequence set in Amsterdam, where Pauline turns a canal cruise into a music video. The lyrics here directly address abortion; in other words, it’s a far cry from the doo wop number Pauline sings backup for earlier in the movie, where a bare-chested, would-be rock god croons, “You know rock and roll is for men!” One Sings, the Other Doesn’t is a counter to that sort of sexism, of course, but mostly by using gentle humor and genuine affection for its characters (even the men). The movie concludes with a lilting single take of a reunion party, at which Suzanne and Pauline have gathered with their various family members and an omniscient voiceover fills us in on the emotional status of each of them. The word that came to mind while watching that scene could also be used to describe the entire movie: generous.