L'une chante, l'autre pas (1977) - Agnes Varda - Film Review
Updated: Jul 4, 2019
L'une chante, l'autre pas, or One Sings, the Other Doesn't tells the story of one of cinema's most beautiful friendships, between Suzanne and Pauline, against the backdrop of an oppressive patriarchy and the rise of women's liberation in France in the 60's and 70's. To say it's one of the most beautiful and moving films ever made might sound like hyperbole, but it's power is so overwhelming, in its beauty and in its tragedy, in its romanticism and in its politics that .
We first meet Pauline, aka Pomme, as she is close to finishing school. She is a rebellious, confrontational and strikingly independent woman. After a chance encounter at a photo studio, where she spots a portrait of an old neighbour, she reconnects with Suzanne. Suzanne is in a dire predicament when Pauline meets her. With two children already she is overwhelmed by pregnancy with her third. To make matters worse, the father is embroiled and caught up in his own depressions. Pauline helps Suzanne out of her predicament, beginning a decade spanning friendship which see these two women transform on screen through a deeply emotional and romantic friendship.
The performance of the two leads, Valérie Mairesse, (Pauline) and (Thérèse Liotard) Suzanne are nothing short of breathtaking, and this becomes one of the films great strengths. Beginning as young teenagers and ending as grown, strong, independent women approaching middle age, both Mairesse and Liotard convey such emotion and such growth throughout the film that one is left feeling like you've known these characters all your life. And, a sign of a truly life changing cinematic experience, as if these women are your long time friends as well. Through the highs and lows of their lives, we are invited in to the complexity of these characters through honest and charismatic performances. Pauline desires to make a life for herself as a singer, navigating love, heartbreak and failure along the way. Suzanne, motivated by her earlier situation becoming heavily involved in women's rights and working at a parental support clinic, raising her children and still hopeful of finding love.
What makes these characters, and performances, even stronger, is that for so much of their story they are separated, yet the love and passion for each ever never feels inauthentic. Following the initial abortion, and further heartbreak for Suzanne, life intervenes to separate these women, and its not until ten years later, at a Mouvement de liberation (MLF) protest for women's rights over their own bodies that they are reunited. It's a deeply moving scene, preceded by one of the films many, quirky, politically inflected musical numbers. The sheer happiness at seeing each other is infectious. Thus begins a back and forth dynamic as these two women, through the solidarity of their fight for independence and freedom, converse through letters of postcards as their lives continue to grow and change.
L'une chante, l'autre pas showcases Agnes Varda as a director at the height of her powers, wielding and bending the cinematic art-form to suit her needs and desires. The film is deeply political, but never polemical, passionate but never blinded, serious yet fun. Varda is making a statement, but she's doing it whilst having a great time. Most importantly, and a true testament to Varda's genius, the film never once loses sight of its characters and their friendship.
As the film charts the growth of the women's liberation movement, culminating in the passing of laws in France allowing women the right the have abortions, the film shines a light on the trials and tribulations these women face trying to carve a life for themselves; as opposed to one shaped and dictated by men. Varda covers deeply political material, and explores various challenges and obstacles women faced. It's as if Varda is channeling both personal experience and having a dialogue with herself at the same time. Exploring how women can shape and control their own destinies and avoid being forced into the roles men enforce on them. Pauline falls in love with an Iranian student. Initially he is a feminist and hugely supportive of her life and dreams. Later, once they have moved to Iran and Pauline is pregnant, he reverts to a patriarchal role, expecting her to abandon her dreams and become a mother. Suzanne, through her work, meets a charming, progressive and handsome Doctor. The attraction between them is palpable. But he is married and unwilling to become his mistress. These are just two of the ways Varda wrestles with her subject matter and theme. That the film manages to constantly remain delightful, joyous and light-hearted is astonishing.
Varda's lightness and delicacy is the films greatest achievement. Her direction and writing never impose themselves on the story. The camera moves effortless and unobtrusively in and around these characters lives. But Varda saves the best moments for the final act. Pauline has managed to create for herself a life that enables her to be a mother and a singer. Suzanne is successful, happy, in love and has raised two children. The final scene closes on a shot of Suzanne's daughter, Marie (played by Varda's own daughter), after the friends, and their families join together at Suzanne's home, a celebration of their solidarity and the future of their struggle. This image, like all of those in this masterpiece live long in the memory, and bring a tear to the eye, like memories of a treasured and life long friendship.