Agnès Varda

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Pauline Kael

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["Une chant et l'autre pas" or "One Sings, the Other Doesn't"] is all up front. It's a cheery, educational feminism-can-be-fun movie. Pomme and her combo tour provincial towns, performing songs with lyrics … such as "I'm neither a tough cookie nor a busy beaver nor a utopian dreamer—I'm a woman, I am me." Decked out in harlequin colors that suggest a French child's dream of what Haight-Ashbury was like, they chant "My Body Is Mine." Singing about the joys of pregnancy when it's "your choice and your pleasure," they wear pillows stuffed inside their long dresses—"It's beautiful to be a balloon." When these bubble dollies send actual balloons into the sky or sing about the "ovules," Varda brings a Disney touch to women's liberation. The sunshiny, masscult-hip simplicity of the feminist movement celebrated here is so laughable you can't hate the picture. You just feel that some of your brain cells have been knocked out.

Visually, the film has the glamorous real-unreal quality of the new feminine-hygiene ads—muted realism. Happiness here is a flower-print dress on a summer day in the country. The appeal of the film is of life seen as sensuous banality, in a pretty pastoral flow. Pomme has the look of an Auguste Renoir model with a bad dye job: a cherub with the frizzies. There's unforced charm in her complacent impudence. But she belts out her songs in a brass-lunged style, and she has a brute quality: her mind, like her lyrics, is a grab bag of feminist slogans. She swings ideas around like a baton twirler, and it's difficult to appreciate a struggle for self-expression which results in songs of the quality of hers. Pomme's middle-class hippie rebelliousness is contrasted with Suzanne's slow, hard-won self-education. Suzanne—reserved to the point of inexpressiveness—is a dimly performed, wan, Madonna-like character whose life seems to fit a traditional pattern. Circumstances force her to push beyond her youthful, Little Match Girl submissiveness, and she rises into the middle class, brings up her children with scrupulous devotion, and achieves the Sheila Levine goal: a doctor husband who loves her; i.e., what used to be called happiness and is now fulfillment.

The only real difference between Suzanne's life and the lives of countless poor, put-upon heroines of fiction who rose by their bootstraps is how colorless and humorless her fine doctor is. That's true of Pomme's Iranian, too; when you hear that he's an economist, you think there's been a mistake—he seems too vague to have acquired any skills. The men in the movie are shaded out. Varda doesn't appear to be antagonistic toward men; she just has no particular interest in them. The purpose of sex in this movie seems to be to have an abortion. That's the real high. Abortion is the new rite of passage, to be reported to one's friends with sad pride. Men are welcome in this balloons-and-sunshine land of the future. They're still needed to provide the plump, gurgling, freely chosen babies. Choice is what's important; the same women who choose abortion then choose pregnancy. There's no psychology in this movie—only sociology. The feminism here is a new form of asexual lyricism.

"One Sings" isn't sentimental in the manipulative manner of commercial movies. On the contrary, there's a whimsical randomness in Varda's approach. At times, as in the early sequence of Pomme's posing for Suzanne's photographer lover, the effect is so fresh it almost seems like luck…. [In "One Sings"] the skin-deep characters don't involve us in their predicaments. They don't seem to have any consciousness—they're just part of the traffic [Varda's] directing. Though we're told...

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that this movie is about how these two women grow, that's exactly what we don't see. There are no perceptible connections between the two heroines, or between them and their parents or their lovers or their children. The way Varda skims over their lives, they could be butterflies or duckies. In Varda's earlier films ("Le Bonheur" especially), the shallowness was sometimes redeemed by physicality; she gave a special tactile feeling to bodies, fabrics, landscapes. It was possible to believe that the characters in "Le Bonheur," as in her "Cleo from 5 to 7," were made deliberately vapid, and so a viewer could get the impression that something complex and elusive was being suggested, even if one couldn't locate it. This time, there's nothing enigmatic about Varda's tone. When Pomme, who treats children as toys for adults, comes up with her solution—to trade off one baby and keep the next—we're meant to think she's sensible. In the terms of this movie, sheis: her idyll works…. Agnès Varda is perfectly candid; everything is as practical and simple as Pomme's approach to maternity. Varda is proud of Pomme's and Suzanne's accomplishments in becoming women. (In this film, being a woman isn't a fact, it's a profession.) Yet experience has no weight in "One Sings"; there are no women in it—only girls. Its vision of the future is of a frolicsome adolescent matriarchy. One cannot accuse Varda of jumping on a bandwagon: her films have always had a sympathetic responsiveness to the women characters, and a polymorphous affection for them. This seems to have become drippier, though, now that she's officially expressing the new awareness, and commenting on the heroines with "Then she had time to cry" or "She went on singing, changing."

Varda's lyricism is trivializing. If there were twenty seconds of footage of an actual abortion in the movie, Pomme's chirrupy songs would be chilling. It seems never to have occurred to Varda that her characters have no depth—that they're amoebic in the way they react to stimuli. She's a lively, sophisticated film technician who thinks that this ode to superficiality is poetic truth. If a big American advertising agency had been given the job of devising a feminist film to offend the smallest number of people, this mindless, cosmetic movie is exactly what it would have come up with. Charming young girls setting their belligerent jaws and singing about their ovules. (pp. 75-8)

Pauline Kael, "Scrambled Eggs," in The New Yorker (© 1977 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LIII, No. 39, November 14, 1977, pp. 75-8.


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