The intertwined lives of two women in 1970s France, set against the progress of the women’s movement in which Agnes Varda was involved. Pomme and Suzanne meet when Pomme helps Suzanne obtain an abortion after a third pregnancy which she cannot afford. They lose contact but meet again ten years later. Pomme has become an unconventional singer, Suzanne a serious community worker – despite the contrast they remain friends and share in the various dramas of each others’ lives, in the process affirming their different female identities.
Alison Smith <[email protected]>
User Reviews: A lot of times when a story is told, a filmmaker has to figure out how to frame the principal characters. And if it’s a story being told over many years, like for the characters in One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, the director needs to know how to take the time out to show… time and how it unfolds. What makes this film so special is that Agnes Varda has such a love for human beings across the board here – even, perhaps against her better judgment, the supporting men like Jerome (the baby daddy of Suzanne’s kids, who we mostly see early in the film), or Darius (Pauline’s Iranian lover) – that the plotlessness is more than fine. She has an innate confidence that we can follow these women and their lives because they’re just that interesting.
My first instinct was to compare it to Boyhood, as far as showing lives being lived and change happening not due to one distinct thing but through a series of moments and things making change seem imperceptible. But this really has more of a novelistic take on Suzanne and Pauline, the details of how they behave and see each other and free will (a very important beat for Pauline early on – she brings it up to her teacher outside of class before asking if she knows anyone who does abortions for her friend Suzanne), and then what are commonly called "women’s rights" like pro-choice and just being able to work and *Be* women. Of course for Varda, as it should be for rational thinking people, these aren’t "women’s" issues but basic human rights.
I should mention here I had a not worry but question going into this: were the "issues" that were mentioned in the synopsis, about how there’s abortion being a big deal for Suzanne early in the story, and then how Suzanne works for a women’s health center (i.e. for reproductive reasons, at the time France didn’t have legality for abortion), and then especially how Pauline finds her calling as a singer and, most importantly, as one who finds her voice as an artist singing about being a woman and with her hippie-ish group of women singers and musicians. Were the issues going to overwhelm the narrative?
I shouldn’t have fretted; Varda certainly has fun staging these very loose musical sequences (one might try to dub this a musical, but something like Nashville then is more of a musical than this, where characters in a grounded reality sing their songs within the story – here it… kind of blends that line, but just barely), but while her leads are proud feminists that’s not what *has to* define them. In a way this sticks back to the free will scene earlier on, albeit for Suzanne, as we see in her flashbacks when Varda flashes from 1962 to 72 that she had to work her way up to becoming part of the women’s health center (lots of typing, even in, darn, the barn): Suzanne and Pauline in each of their ways practice free will, and it can’t help but be tied to political and social concerns (not "issues" either, that labels it too simplistically). And really if we don’t like these people, why should we stick through it amid the social commentary?
This is a surprisingly ambitious movie in some ways; Varda’s film goes from France – cities and rural parts – to Amsterdam to Iran and then back to France rural parts again, and when she cuts suddenly from a conversation bit between Pauline and Darius to Iran there just has to be a narration reminding us how postcard-like this image she cuts to is. ‘One Sings’ has something like, I don’t know and lost count, about 400 scenes it seems like, some of them quite short, and a lot of time narration from Suzanne and Pauline (reading their letters as they are most often pen pals), and Varda herself as the sort of God of this story (as well she is!)
The one mark I could make against it is that it starts to go/feel a little long near the end, and yet at the same time I felt that impulse or criticism or observation and fought against it in the theater watching this; I wanted to be with these women longer – Varda’s chronology makes it where the story could end in any number of spots (once we understand what Pauline’s seemingly instinctual/maternal plan is with Darius, a kinda-sorta-not-quite separation where he gets a kid and then he knocks her up so she can have another in respective countries, that last third or so seems set as a loose story with something to look forward to if not an end), and yet it’s such a warm and generous kind of storytelling all through this.
Sometimes a filmmaker feels like he or she (usually he) is directing a story to a specific place and we can intuit where it might be headed – it doesn’t make it any less entertaining or engaging, but the formula is part of the pact we make with the film. Varda, to equate it to painting, has all of these little strokes she’s doing, and at first it doesn’t seem like it will amount up to much, and yet this gradualness brought me closer to Suzanne and Pauline (and, as well, the performances, Mairesse especially, got deeper and more tremendously felt as it went on), and the sense of play is wrapped up in a unique presentation: it’s drama, but we aren’t made to ask "What does this scene have to be ABOUT?" all the time; it’s documentary, but then dialog is breaking it up; it’s musical, but for a long stretch it isn’t. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a river-boat journey through 15 years of… life, and for women specifically, that can’t be tossed aside.