Agnès Varda's One Sings, The Other Doesn’t (1977) runs this week at BAMCinématek in a new restoration overseen by the filmmaker herself. A narrative feature shot in both France and Iran, the film has aged, interestingly, like a documentary: with a historical significance and quality usually expected of nonfiction films. Varda set out to make a mainstream movie in which its lead characters think and speak (and sing!) openly about sexist stereotypes—perhaps unremarkable to anyone who takes this freedom for granted—but in that context at that time, a bold and radical cinematic statement.
Here, Varda confronts clichés about femininity, sexuality, motherhood, and marriage by comparing and contrasting the parallel and sometimes intersecting narratives of two women’s lives. Pomme (Valérie Mairesse) and Suzanne (Thérèse Liotard) are two women from two different upbringings who forge an unlikely friendship that spans a decade of tumultuous romance, adventure, enlightenment, and sorrow. Their friendship endures despite their separation—of time and space and social class—though the reflections raised by their intermittent, intimate postcard correspondence. The film is a portrait of a friendship, and of a spiritual awakening, at a time when neither men nor women dared acknowledge either as essential qualities of the female experience. While men are certainly present and profoundly affect the courses of both of their lives, Varda portrays these women first and foremost in relationship to each other, and their past and future selves—which even the woman of 2018 will find refreshing, considering how much more work there is to do at establishing this as unremarkable and undeniable fact.
For those familiar with Varda’s work and life, the very personal nature of this particular film cannot be ignored. Besides Varda’s countless interviews citing real-life events that inspired the development of this imagined narrative, there are several other clues that seem to indicate that Pomme and Suzanne are, in some ways, two sides of the same coin, two expressions of the same mind. At a certain point, both characters appear dressed in variations of Varda’s signature monochromatic purple—and one cannot help but wonder the degree to which fact is blended with fiction, in this, as in all of her films.