Bechdel Test Canon: One Sings, The Other Doesn't
When I originally set out to put together a collection of films for a blog series meant as a feminist response to the A.V. Club’s New Cult Canon, I didn’t anticipate that I’d use the term “writer-director” so often. I suspect the reason isn’t quite so innocent.
Certainly a number of great male auteurs shoot their own scripts, including the men of the French New Wave (and, as I’ll elaborate further, their female precursor and contemporary). But many directors work with screenwriters. Martin Scorsese did some of his most inspired work with Paul Schrader. Alfred Hitchcock worked with several different screenwriters. Wes Anderson has counted Owen Wilson, Noah Baumbach, and Roman Coppola as writing partners. This doesn’t even get into the issue of adaptation, a process undertaken by directors as seemingly diffuse as John Ford, Stanley Kubrick, Robert Altman, Jonathan Demme, David Cronenberg, Spike Lee, Tim Burton, the Coen Brothers, Ang Lee, David Lynch, Richard Linklater, Gregg Araki, the Hughes Brothers, Todd Haynes, Sofia Coppola, Lynne Ramsay…the list goes on.
Like many feminists, I take issue with auteur theory. Though a number of scholars elaborated upon and nuanced the concept, authorship can still hide the inherent collaborative nature of filmmaking. I’m not sure championing female or feminist auteurs helps, as it doesn’t radically alter a model that prioritizes individual achievement and exceptionalism. Denying room for collaboration seems to simply reinscribe patriarchal notions of power onto women.
I wonder what the woman who coined the term “cinécriture” would have to say about all of this. French filmmaker Agnès Varda created the word to refer to her style as a filmmaker, as well as the interdependent relationship between a director and screenwriter (who may be the same person) and the myriad of decisions a director makes in the process of realizing a film. Thus Varda declares herself to be a director who is instilling meaning in all the details that comprise her work.
Varda remains a filmmaker with a considerable amount of artistic freedom and is one of the few who defines herself as a feminist. Some may argue that she traded mainstream success for her commitment to autonomy. She is an independent filmmaker, operating her own production company and raising money to complete and distribute her films. As a number of writer-directors in this collection could attest, operating outside the mainstream and apart from the patriarchy can cost you. But you get to keep your name or, in Varda’s case, change it.
“Cinécriture” takes on new meaning when applied to Varda’s 1977 feature One Sings, The Other Doesn’t, a musical about how the women’s movement frames two women’s adult lives and evolving friendship. The film wasn’t as warmly received as her early classics La Pointe Courte and Cléo de 5 a 7. One Sings’ investment in applying the Brechtian notion of alienation to musical interludes divided filmgoers in ways similar to Le Bonheur, a deceptively sunny treatise against bourgeois marriage that prompted a fight between my partner and me about heterosexual coupling’s power dynamics.
In addition to directing and screenwriting, Varda also provided the libretto, which boldly—some might say artlessly—addresses feminist issues like abortion, reproductive choice, domestic labor, motherhood, and marriage. These last two issues also guide the actions of the two friends. Suzanne (Thérèse Liotard) is a shamed single mother who becomes a family counselor. Pauline, later Pomme (Valérie Mairesse), falls in love with Iranian feminist Darius (Ali Raffi) who turns out to want a conventional wife after they marry and agrees to raise their young son by himself after he helps conceive her second child.
Some people simply hate musicals because the thought of people bursting into song—on the bus, in a supermarket, next to them—gives them the willies. Varda anticipates modern musical directors’ inclination to justify a song’s placement by embedding it within the film’s action rather than placing it apart to provide information or forward narrative momentum. As the title suggests, Pauline is the one who sings—first as part of a mixed chorus and street performer. Then, as a countercultural gesture that recalls Varda’s disavowal of her original name Arlette, Pauline becomes Pomme (meaning “Apple”) and sings as a protester, musical theater composer, and founding member of the feminist band Orchid. All of the musical sequences emanate from her amazingly surreal forays into hippie theater.
But Varda makes a conscious decision to part ways with film musical conventions by parking her camera in front of the action instead of following it. Varda, a photographer by training, is known for static shot compositions that give her actors the agency to establish and reshape the cinematic tableaux. Juxtaposed by Bob Fosse’s inclination to objectify and compartmentalize bodies with tight close ups and extensive cutting, Varda’s inclusive, holistic staging and camerawork read as a feminist response.
Pomme’s singing shouldn’t overshadow why working-class Suzanne chooses not to. Rebecca DeRoo argues that Suzanne is still part of the musical narrative despite her decision (or inability) to offer her voice. The friends are separate for much of the film, corresponding through occasional post cards and brief visits while constantly occupying each other’s thoughts and conversations with lovers. The women’s friendship outlives their romantic partnerships. This is another way that Varda departs from generic convention, as musicals usually end after the principles are paired off.
The film ends with their reunion, but there’s no reprise, big finish, or final bow to suggest a happy ending. At the start of the film, Varda invokes Simone de Beauvoir’s assertion that women are made rather than born in voiceover narration. The anticlimactic epilogue may suggest that these women—and all women—are in a continued state of becoming. This statement speaks to Varda’s significance as a filmmaker, a director who uses feminist practice to develop her own cinematic language to write herself and her work into being.
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