The ‘Sweet Genius’ of Agnès Varda & the Pleasure of Female Friendship
The ‘Sweet Genius’ of Agnès Varda & The Pleasure of Female Friendship
By Laura Lee Bahr
The pleasure of friendship, time-worn and as familiar as a second skin, is the comfort and delight that is Agnès Varda’s “One Sings, the Other Doesn’t” (1977). Varda — a pioneer of the French New Wave, lifelong feminist filmmaker (her career spans from 1955-2019), and “one of the Gods of Cinema” — creates an intimate portrait of women supporting women with this musical (yes, but not in the way you think “musical”).
In 1971, France, when abortion was illegal, a 16-year -old Marie-Claire stands trial, along with her mother and three other adults who helped her, for having one. She was turned in by the man who raped her. A protest outside the court where women chant, “We’ve all had abortions, put us on trial, too!” is the setting of a joyous reunion.
Here, Pomme (Valérie Mairesse) and Suzanne (Thérèse Liotard) find each other again after losing touch for ten years. (Easter egg: the renowned lawyer, feminist, and activist Giséle Halimi, who argued for Marie-Claire, appears as herself as a cameo in the film). Suzanne is there with her daughter to attend the protest, and Pomme, a bright red-haired woman, can’t be missed as she sings a protest song:
“Neither Pop nor the Pope, nor doc nor judge will lay down the law for me … my body is mine.”
Ten years prior, 17-year-old Pomme (then called Pauline) helped 22-year-old Suzanne — unwed with two young children and pregnant again — to get an abortion.
Suzanne and Pauline were separated after a traumatic event, but when they meet again at the protest, they maintain their friendship through postcards, letters, and the imaginative space they share in telling the other their stories, which we as the viewer see in totality even if the postcards sent only have a few lines.
Suzanne has become a social worker at a family planning clinic, and Pauline has become Pomme, who writes protest songs and makes performance art. We watch as the two define and find themselves through their relationships, motherhood, and work. Cooking dinner at an apartment in France, traveling in a tourist boat in Amsterdam, walking the deserts of Iran, snapping beans, nursing a baby, singing in a choir. The sweet genius of this movie is how it invites you as a viewer into a relationship with each character. Never judgmental or preachy, the movie unfolds like friendship itself, taking its time to let us discover who we are with and allows us to have a meaningful conversation with them.
The musical numbers give you the feeling of being there in the audience with the other “regular people” that Varda loves to feature, participating in the folk-type performance in found spaces, sun-drenched in sisterhood.
There is needed medicine and healing in watching this 1977 French film here in the U.S. in 2022. After watching it, weepy and buzzed from two glasses of wine, I felt like I had just received a giant hug from Agnès Varda herself.
It is meant to be a group hug, so please join in.
You can watch for free with your library card on Kanopy:
Or Criterion collection subscription:
Abortion in France–Mentalities and Legalities since the 1970s, by Marie Diehl, 2020. In Global History Dialogues:
Interview with Rosalie Varda, IndieWire 2019
Martin Scorses honors Agnes Varda at Telluride, Hollywood Reporter, 2019
Agnès Varda Filmography: