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TO CALL Agnes Varda's latest film, One Sings, The Other Doesn't, feminist art is to insult both feminism and art. Such claims will undoubtedly be made, however, for Varda sets her story of the long-term friendship of two women against the back-drop of the feminist movement of the '60s, presumably illustrating Simone deBeauvoir's famous line, "women are made, not born." But Varda's feminism concerns itself only with those things that have to do specifically with the female body. For her, feminism equals the Pill and easily-had abortions. Varda fails to realize that women are troubled by anything other than unwanted pregnancies, that they must fight deep-seated prejudices to be recognized as intellectual and social equals in what has always been a man's world.
When the film begins, it is 1962 and Pauline (Valerie Mairesse) is a slightly overweight, optimistic 17 year old who wears traditional schoolgirl clothes, carries a bookbag, and lets her bright red ponytail bounce from side to side as she sings in the school choir. Her friend Suzanne (Therese Liotard) is thin, withdrawn, feels like she's 100, and is really only 22. She and her photographer boyfriend have two children and no money, and are expecting an abortion.
The friends are soon forced to part, however. Suzanne's boyfriend hangs himself, leaving her with two kids and no place to go but home. She exchanges tearful goodbyes with Pauline and heads off for her parents' farm in the country. Ten years later, while protesting at an abortion rally, the two finally meet again. Both have obviously settled into hip, young womanhood. Pomme has traded in both her old name and her schoolgirl charms for embroidered clothes, an Iranian boyfriend, and a guitar: she sings songs about round and flat tummies. Suzanne wears a softly tailored suit and a "hey, I'm together now" smile. A hug, kiss and a "gee, you look great" later the two part again, this time promising to keep in touch with long letters.
Varda, who narrates the story, tell us that the letters never materialize. A few thin lines dashed across the backs of picture postcards take their place. For the rest of the film, then, Varda allows herself to jump back and forth in time, from Suzanne to Pomme to Suzanne again, making the transitions through shots of a map or a postage stamp. Such a device is really only a flimsy coverup, justifying the connection of two largely unrelated stories. The film fails dramatically because no working relationship is even established between the two women; their friendship, like the solutions to their problems, exists only in the fairytale world of Varda's imagination.
Flashing back through the last ten years, we see Suzanne suffering in the barren French countryside, chopping wood, feeding geese, brushing her hair back with a dirty hand and a sigh. The camerawork here resembles a series of still photographs, romanticizing the harshness of country life, portraying Suzanne's parents as priggish, old-fashioned country people. The severity of the surroundings is so exaggerated that instead of echoing Suzanne's misery it just makes her look silly and implausible. Would a hip woman from Paris really resort to practicing her typing with the cows in the barn to avoid disturbing her crotchety old father in the house?
A postcard later we are in Pomme's world of sequined clothes and superficial song lyrics. She goes to Amsterdam for an abortion as other women go to the beauty parlor to get their hair done. It is a happy time; Pomme feels a part of the family of women, singing songs for them about tulips and "ovules." She goes to Iran with her boyfriend, gets married, gets pregnant and sings "oh, it's good to be a big fat dream."
Then the bubble bursts. Pomme's husband becomes possessive and she is torn, wanting her baby and wanting her freedom. For a moment it seems Varda might be getting down to serious business, facing up to a problem common to contemporary women. But within the moment we return to storyland. Pomme proposes a solution to her husband: "Give me another child, that way we'll each have one." Such an extraordinary proposition is not out of place in this whimsical context of child-mothers and doll-babies. It is a viable solution in Varda's guilt-free world.
And so it goes. The impregnated Pomme is back on the road, singing about her new-found identity: "I'm not a nanny nor a granny nor a fanny. I'm a woman. I am me." Suzanne works in a family planning center, meets a pediatrician and gets married (which does not necessarily mean copping out if the man is as colorless and undefined as this doctor is). When the film ends it is 1976 and Pomme and Suzanne are together again, completely fulfilled by their extended families, guitars and old photographs. Varda concludes her makeshift friendship by telling us, "They were alike; they had fought to gain the happiness of being a woman."
POMME AND SUZANNE are supposed to symbolize the new consciousness. They are, presumably, free to make their own choices about their minds and bodies. Varda tells us over and over again that this is so; she makes clear her intent in transitional narrative scenes throughout the film. Yet the characters themselves never make this felt. They know their own bodies, but not their own minds; their speech is no more than a succession of feminist slogans. Pomme childishly believes that she is redefining her position within society by abandoning her responsibilities and singing the praises of pregnancy in the streets.
Suzanne, tired of suffering and loneliness, cops out and fulfills the stereotypical mother's dream for her daughter in her marriage to an established doctor. Varda justifies the wedding by saying it was without bourgeois frills; for entertainment they played records and scrabble. Nevertheless, this marriage is disturbing, as are all of Varda's male-female relationships. There is no redifinition of a women's role in relation to a man here. If a man is dominant and aggressive the woman simply leaves him. If he is weak and easily patronized the women can stay. There are no struggles, no ugly scenes. Relationships either remain stagnant or are broken off. Commitments are never considered. They would only mess up Varda's tidy system.
So One Sings, The Other Doesn't is more than a bad movie--it is a potentially damaging portrayal of the women's movement. It virtually advertises abortions as fun and easy, something every woman should experience. No operating tables are shown, no struggle for effective legislation is related, and Pomme and Suzanne never run across an old prejudice or moral value that they can't handle. If the going gets tough, they split. They aren't really interested in changing society; all Pomme wants to do is sing the glories of women and pregnancy: "It's good to be a bubble, a balloon...a workshop for molecules...a cell factory."
Varda's film is not as harmless as her lyrics. It is upsetting because it can and is being taken seriously. Those who have eagerly awaited a so-called "feminist film" are jumping on Varda's bandwagon, pushing her on to popular success. When Varda's silly women start being called "symbols" they aren't so funny any more.
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