The first feminist gesture is to say: “OK, they’re looking at me. But I’m looking at them.” The act of deciding to look, of deciding that the world is not defined by how people see me, but how I see them.

― Agnès Varda1

There are some filmmakers whose influence is so grand and so inescapable that they transform the medium – Agnès Varda is one such person, an earnest and eternal beacon of a new cinema. Born in Belgium in 1928, Varda moved to France with her family at the age of twelve, then studied art history and photography as a young woman. Her early success in photography formed the basis of her filmmaking inspiration; photography was often a precursor to the kind of shots she would later film.2 Photographing sets and visual ideas gave her the answer for how to frame a particular scene. Much of her filmmaking technical knowledge was founded in photography school, since she never formally studied cinema. In fact, at the age of 25, just before making her first film, La Pointe Courte (1955), she claimed not to have seen more than 20 or so films. When asked about how she wrote her first screenplay, she later described it as “just the way a person writes his first book. When I’d finished writing it, I thought to myself: ‘I’d like to shoot that script,’ and so some friends and I formed a cooperative to make it.”.3

Though her early filmmaking slightly predates the French New Wave, it is considered an important part of that canon. François Truffaut’s famous 1954 manifesto-like essay, “Une certaine tendance du cinéma français” (“A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema”) especially rejected what critics had previously called the tradition de qualité (“Tradition of Quality”); that is, that filmmaking should be praised for following traditional craftsmanship techniques rather than for any direct innovation. Truffaut also objected to filmmakers tending to adapt ‘safe’ literature over writing new and interesting screenplays.4 Varda’s filmmaking style – which is grounded in her photographic study and notable for its on-location shooting style – quintessentially rejects established filmmaking techniques by the very nature of her lack of formal training. Her craft is based on connections to other mediums including literature and fine art and the result is startlingly fresh; her narrative structure is typically avant-garde. She was specifically associated with the ‘Left Bank’ group of French New Wave filmmakers, the older and less financially privileged group, who were interested in broader arts than pure cinema. It would also be erroneous to fail to mention just how impactful Varda’s womanhood was on her body of work. She was a female filmmaker who emerged on her own terms, with strong original ideas, and without spending years working through the existing studio system as a director’s assistant (as was expected of serious aspiring filmmakers at the time). Many of her films are boldly political, highlighting her interest in women’s liberation and second-wave feminism, and there is no better example of this than L’une chante, l’autre pas (One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, 1977).

Varda herself has claimed that she is “not at all a theoretician of feminism”,5 and I would agree that she is no theoretician. In all elements of her political and personal life, she was a pragmatist above all else. In 1971 – six years before she made One Sings, the Other Doesn’t – Varda signed the Manifesto of the 343, a document signed by 343 women who had had illegal abortions, in a poignant bid to highlight its frequent occurrence in French society and to challenge the country’s abortion laws, which judged the act punishable by a prison sentence of up to 10 years.

Themes of abortion, women’s bodies and sovereignty, as well as social rebellion, pepper Varda’s work but are especially present in One Sings, the Other Doesn’t. The story follows two women: the first, “Pomme” (Valérie Mairesse), a fiery-tempered teenage free spirit, befriends the quiet and morose Suzanne (Thérèse Liotard), who is completely overwhelmed by her two infant children and the looming spectre of an unwanted pregnancy. Pomme deceptively obtains money for Suzanne’s covert (and illegal) abortion, but the two are soon driven apart by tragedy and circumstance. 10 years later, they are reunited at the scene of a pro-abortion demonstration that was directly inspired by Varda’s own activism as one of the 343; the scene re-creates a real protest which occurred in Paris in 1972 at the trial of a 16-year-old girl for having an illegal abortion after being raped. Though the two women differ in demeanour, class and aspiration, they share a bond of womanhood that cannot be broken by time or distance. Importantly, one is domestic, the other a rebel, but they are equal in their womanhood, both are activists, and both raise their children alone.

Critics were divided over this film at its opening at the New York Film Festival in 1977. While some were praising its groundbreaking feminism – such as critic Molly Haskell, who called it “the film we have been waiting for”6 – others such as Amy Taubin were unsatisfied, labelling it insufficiently radical.7 This criticism had already been anticipated by Varda, who stated that French feminists claimed she was “being too nuanced, not anti‐men enough”.8 In the events of the film, Pomme, too, is criticised during a performance with her street-theatre troupe whereby a woman objects to her singing about how “beautiful it is to be a balloon” in reference to her pregnant belly. The critic demands to know why a feminist would make motherhood sound so dreamy, as though she were enticing women to have children. Pomme bites back, emphasising the importance of choice in motherhood, and refuses to diminish a part of her life experience that is inherent to her sex. The musical structure of the film emphasises its radical nature, focusing on the hardships of the musicians which they express explicitly in their lyrics (all of which were written by Varda). On the topic of women and pregnancy, Varda elaborates: “People ask what does it mean [sic]. Why does it make a woman more womanly to have children? They don’t ask Fellini what he means when he always has fat women. He just likes them. I like children. I guess I’m a baby freak.”9

It is important to note that the power of Varda’s films comes partly from their intimacy to the subject. Varda puts her own voice in the film quite literally, acting as the omniscient narrator, and casting her own two children as Suzanne’s son and daughter. The events of the film echo Varda’s own life. The two characters – the rebel and the country wife – could be seen as two halves of Varda’s own complex character: she is a revolutionary artist whose films continue to inspire creative women globally, and she is also a mother who loves babies, cooking and sewing. Neither is a contradiction and, like her, Varda’s films are a poignant landscape of ordinary women doing extraordinary things.

L’une chante, l’autre pas/One Sings, The Other Doesn’t (1977 France 116 minutes)

Prod Co: Ciné Tamaris Dir: Agnès Varda Scr: Agnès Varda Phot: Charlie Van Damme Ed: Joële Van Effenterre Mus: François Werthmeimer, Orchidée, Agnès Varda Prod Des: Franckie Diago Cos Des: Franckie Diago

Cast: Thérèse Liotard, Valérie Mairesse, Ali Rafie, Robert Dadiès, Jean-Pierre Pellegrin


  1. Filmer le désir – Voyage à travers le cinéma de femmes (Filming Desire: A Journey Through Women’s Cinema, Marie Mandy, 2000).
  2. Rebecca DeRoo, Agnes Varda between Film, Photography, and Art (Oakland: University of California Press, 2018), pp. 43-45, 88, 108.
  3. Paris Photo, Conversation with Agnès Varda (France: Paris Photo Interview Series, 2016).
  4. François Truffaut, “Une certaine tendance du cinéma français” in Cahiers du cinéma, no. 31 (1954).
  5. John Wakeman, World Film Directors (New York: H. W. Wilson, the University of Michigan, 1987).
  6. Molly Haskell, “Women’s Place – in the sun at last,” New York Magazine, 26 September 1977.
  7. Amy Taubin, “Toward a feminist cinema,” Soho Weekly News, 6 October 1977.
  8. Flora Lewis, “Varda: “Is There Such a Thing as A Woman’s Film?””,” The New York Times, 18 September 1977.
  9. Ibid.

About The Author

Faith Everard is an independent film scholar and former radio producer from Melbourne. She has a deep passion for cinema old and new.

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