In 1962, Suzanne and photographer Jérôme can barely afford the two children they have; pregnant, Suzanne seeks money for an abortion. Pauline, a teen neighbor, secures money from a singing gig. (Jérôme commits suicide.) The two women remain friends for the ensuing fifteen years, meeting again ten years later at an abortion rights rally. Reproductive freedom being the cornerstone of gender equality, one continues to sing for the cause while the other runs a family planning clinic. Each eventually marries, by which time Pauline has adopted the name Pomme (Apple).
Films by Agnès Varda tended to have a chiseled quality; formally, her L’une chante, l’autre pas is instead loose and airy, partly to convey the breathing fabric of each woman’s life and of the “inexplicable friendship” between them. One beautiful panning shot, showing the anxious faces of women awaiting abortions at an Amsterdam hospital at a time the procedure was still illegal in France, suggests (as do other shots) the sisterhood to which both Pomme and Suzanne belong. At another point, Suzanne says, “I felt a part of the family of women.”
Varda narrates, providing some continuity, but also finding her throwing in her lot with these women, in whose movement at the time she herself was an activist, and helping to nudge the fictional material towards documentary reality.
Varda’s film is, typically, warm, gentle, generous. It doesn’t attack men, although it pointedly attempts to glean why a seemingly liberal one holds onto patriarchic prerogatives.
In a brilliant scene, Suzanne confronts a client who is pregnant, having not taken the birth control pills that a doctor prescribed. “Are you Catholic?” Suzanne asks. Response: “I am not a believer.” But apparently some residual Catholic matter prevented this woman from pursuing self-determination.
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