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Despite its amiable spirit of inclusion, Agnès Varda's pop paean to sisterhood, "One Sings, the Other Doesn't," proved divisive from the night it opened the 1977 New York Film Festival.
One feminist critic, Molly Haskell, wrote that, were she given to blurbs, she'd have called it "the film we have been waiting for!" Another, Amy Taubin, found the movie insufficiently radical. Writing in The New York Times, Vincent Canby compared it to Soviet-style propaganda; The New Yorker's Pauline Kael imagined that the film could have been made by "a big American advertising agency." Some critics thought "One Sings" paid too much attention to men. Others thought that the male characters were unfairly consigned to the periphery. Reviews complained about the songs or objected to the melodrama.
To her credit Ms. Varda, who described her work as a "feminist musical," anticipated a few of these criticisms, telling a Times reporter that she had been attacked by French feminists for "being too nuanced, not anti-men enough." But you can be the judge.
The movie's first scene has an extroverted teenager, Pauline (Valérie Mairesse), pondering a gallery wall covered with photographs of depressed-looking women, most of them nude, and then boldly interrogating the male photographer. Despite a tragedy that occurs soon after (or perhaps because of it), Ms. Varda's portrait of womanhood appears as a corrective to the glum gallery show. "One Sings" is so utopian that it might have taken its title from her earlier feature, "Le Bonheur" ("Happiness").
Pauline is unimpressed with the photographer but establishes an immediate rapport with his unhappy common-law wife, Suzanne (Thérèse Liotard), who is the mother of two children and pregnant with a third. Pauline tricks her parents into paying for Suzanne's abortion and, as a result, is forced to leave home. The women go their separate ways but meet again, 10 years later in 1972, at an abortion-rights demonstration in Paris. (The rally is connected to the Bobigny trial, a crucial moment for the women's movement in France, when a mother faced criminal charges after obtaining an illegal abortion for her teenage daughter, the victim of a rape.)
Pauline, now known as Pomme (Apple), has become a singer involved in feminist street theater. (Among the more controversial numbers, based on her audience's response, is a peppy pro-pregnancy anthem with the refrain, "beautiful to be a balloon.") Suzanne runs a women's health clinic in the south of France. A series of flashbacks recount how the two arrived at their current positions, and it's implicit that both were influenced by the civil unrest in May 1968. They subsequently keep in touch by postcards, many from Iran, where Pomme lives an Arabian Nights fantasy, at least for a time.
Arguing for abortion rights while celebrating motherhood, "One Sings" is an anthology of Ms. Varda's other interests, including photography, documenting rural France and unconventional domestic arrangements. As a fairy-tale French musical, the film can stand beside those of Ms. Varda's life partner, Jacques Demy, director of "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" and "Young Girls of Rochefort" and feels even more personal. The large cast includes her own two children.— J. Hoberman, The New York Times
Tue November 7, 7:00 PM, Muenzinger Auditorium
Belgium, France, Soviet Union, Venezuela; 1977; in German, English, French, Dutch, Persian; 120 min
Director: Agnès Varda, Writer: Agnès Varda, Lyricist: Agnès Varda, Cast: Thérèse Liotard, Valérie Mairesse, Robert Dadiès, Mona Mairesse, Francis Lemaire