Home Video Hovel: One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, by David Bax

Agnès Varda’s 1977 One Sings, the Other Doesn’t is set largely in 1972, making it something of a short-haul period piece. The period Varda is regarding is the early 1970s feminist movement in France, which she frames, at first glance, as being almost entirely about abortion. “Pregnancy is fleeting,” as one character states, but it still manages to dominate the movie. Upon further inspection, though, the legality of abortion is only the lens through which Varda chooses to inspect a bevy of feminist issues like the basic humanity of having choices in life as well as the larger, deeper and more special subject of friendship, trust, solidarity and love among women.

Our protagonists are Pauline (Valérie Mairesse), who sings, and Suzanne (Thérèse Liotard), who does not. They originally meet in 1962, when Suzanne is a young mother and Pauline is still in high school. When Pauline helps her slightly older friend through a series of tragic misfortunes, the two are emotionally bonded for life. Once we jump ahead ten years, they haven’t seen each other recently but immediately pick up where they left off once they do. Despite occasionally being separated by great distances, the two remain constant companions at heart.

We are introduced to young Pauline rehearsing with her school’s choir but, by 1972, she’s putting her vocal talents to use writing and performing folky protest songs. She travels the countryside with an arts and music collective, singing these songs to anyone willing to listen (and some who aren’t). This conceit allows Varda to make One Sings, the Other Doesn’t into something of a musical. Most of the songs are baked into the reality of the scene and are shot more or less straight on and unadorned. But at least one, a bittersweet, slightly humorous ditty about a group of women who have traveled to Amsterdam for abortions, blossoms into a full-fledged, disbelief-suspending musical number, with Pauline singing directly to camera while gliding down the river.

One Sings, the Other Doesn’t is at times very funny and at other times very angry and covers a long list of other emotions in between. At its core, though, it’s a love story. Not a romance, as that description usually suggests (one of them actually says, “With her, it’s like love but without the headaches”) but a portrait of friends who truly love each other, a dismayingly rare thing to see committed to film at this depth. Most of us ought to be able to relate, though, to the way Pauline and Suzanne think about one another when they’re apart, imagining conversations and trying to look at their own experiences as the other would see them. This sort of friendship isn’t that uncommon but One Sings, the Other Doesn’t illustrates how, for women, it can be even more important; it can be a crucial source of support amidst an unfriendly world.

Criterion’s Blu-ray transfer comes from a 2K scan of the original negative done at Eclair in France. Varda herself, who has since passed away, oversaw the new color timing. The audio is also commendable, giving heft both to Pauline’s strummy songs and the more lush orchestral score.

Special features include a 1977 documentary shot during the making of the film, two short films by Varda and an essay by the great Amy Taubin.

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