Several months ago, Agnès Varda received an honorary Academy Award for her extraordinary career and an Oscar nomination for her 2017 documentary feature, “Faces Places.” (In a world as sweetly utopian as the one she often depicts, she would have won the latter prize outright.) At age 90, this Belgian-born master remains justly beloved for her roving, exploratory approach to filmmaking, her influence on the French New Wave and a feminism that courses through her work as naturally and insistently as her impish sense of humor.
All these qualities are on luminous display in Varda’s 1977 film, “One Sings, the Other Doesn’t” (L’Une Chante, L’Autre Pas), which screens in a fresh 2-K digital restoration Tuesday night at the Downtown Independent. The movie lays out its plan of attack in its opening scene: In 1962, an outspoken 17-year-old named Pauline (Valérie Mairesse) enters a photo gallery filled with somber-looking female nudes and wonders why they all look so sad. The photographer, Jérôme (Robert Dadiès), disagrees, claiming that he captures his subjects in a natural state of being, sans posing or artifice.
Pauline remains unconvinced. So does Varda, whose wondrously free-form movie — full of color and light, warmth and music — plays like a rebuke to the idea of viewing women through such a stiff, reductive prism. Jérôme will soon vanish from the picture, while our attention shifts to his 22-year-old lover, Suzanne (Thérèse Liotard), a former neighbor of Pauline’s. Suzanne already has two children with Jérôme and is pregnant with a third, until Pauline helps her procure an abortion — a gesture that seals the two women’s friendship for life.
Even in the wake of tragic loss and tumultuous upheaval, “One Sings, the Other Doesn’t” is an enchantingly upbeat chronicle of that friendship as it unfolds over the next 14 years, a period that overlaps with the post-1968 French women’s movement. Despite their differences in background, temperament and vocation, both the sparky Pauline and the more melancholic Suzanne are united by the same activist spirit. The two live apart for long stretches but stay in touch through postcards, supplemented by flashbacks and voice-over narration, which gives the picture the quality of an epistolary novel.
Pauline, who renames herself Pomme (or Apple), joins a feminist performance troupe whose songs nearly transform the film into a full-blown musical. (Varda wrote the lyrics herself.) Suzanne, after raising her children for a while on her parents’ miserable farm, teaches herself to type, gets a job and opens her own family planning clinic. Reproductive freedom is repeatedly foregrounded: The two women meet again at an abortion-rights protest in 1972, by which point Pomme has also terminated a pregnancy. The film’s embrace of motherhood — we watch as Suzanne’s children grow up, and Pomme eventually has two of her own — is no less sincerely or passionately felt.
To describe Varda’s picture as an ardent tribute to the never-not-timely subjects of women’s liberation and solidarity is to risk making it sound awfully schematic. But if “One Sings, the Other Doesn’t” is something of a thesis movie, that thesis takes shape gently, with equal parts documentary grit and dreamlike evanescence. (Varda’s career-long play with nonfiction techniques is very much in evidence, particularly when lawyer and feminist activist Gisèle Halimi appears as herself in the 1972 protest scene.)
Not all the critics were convinced when the film first screened in the U.S. Pauline Kael, writing in the New Yorker, dismissed it as “a cheery, educational, feminism-can-be-fun movie” and said that “Varda’s lyricism is trivializing.” The New York Times’ Vincent Canby likened it to Soviet propaganda and complained that the male roles were superfluous, especially that of Darius (Ali Raffi), the Iranian man who fathers Pomme’s two children but soon becomes another oppressive patriarch.
Leaving aside the question of whether superfluous male roles are such a bad thing in a medium that often treats women as an afterthought (plus ça change), it’s fascinating that Varda spends as much time as she does on Darius — and to a lesser extent Pierre (Jean-Pierre Pellegrin), the married doctor who makes a late bid for Suzanne’s affections. The movie dwells on these men precisely because they mean a great deal to Pomme and Suzanne, but crucially, it acknowledges their place in the story without allowing them to dominate it.
In Varda’s movies, a commitment to politics doesn’t mean the negation of nuance, ambiguity, pleasure, love. She seems to share with her two heroines not just a talent for continual self-reinvention but also an understanding that collective progress and personal fulfillment are never achieved without self-doubt or compromise. That sentiment comes through beautifully in a sequence set at a joyous outdoor reunion: The camera drifts along a riverbank and eventually comes to rest on Pomme and Suzanne, their faces alive with a serenity as lovely as it is hard-won.
‘One Sings, the Other Doesn’t’
(In French with English subtitles)
Running time: 2 hours
Playing: 8 p.m. Tuesday, July 24, at Downtown Independent