Director: John Carney
Starring: Glen Hansard, Marketa Irglova
A Guy (Hansard) and a Girl (Irglova) meet in Dublin. Both are musicians without an outlet, both are working menial jobs to barely make enough money to get by, and both have recently been dealt losses in their love lives. Drawn together by music, they rehearse and record an album of the guy’s original songs, all while a strong romantic attraction between them looms in the background.
This is an incredibly sweet film. “Sweet” can be such a terrible word, but I mean it un-ironically here. The growing affection between the guy and girl feels natural and unforced but still manages to make me feel all warm and glowing on the inside; even better, it has realistic missteps. Early on in the film, the guy invites the girl back to his bedroom and asks her to spend the night, to which she replies, “Fuck this,” and leaves. He feels stupid, and must make amends later. Little glitches like this in their relationship make it feel far more relatable. As Shakespeare said, “The course of true love never did run smooth.” I really appreciate that about the film; it manages to set the romance apart from the thousands of other stereotypical film romances.
Of the two performances that drive the film, I am most taken with that by Irglova. She is fantastic as the girl, straightforward and shooting from the hip, even on her first meeting with the guy. She calls him out and he can’t help but notice. She is warm and funny, yet clearly manages to communicate a life that has experience, and not all of it good. The image of her dragging her Hoover down Grafton Street in Dublin is perhaps the most indelible.
Musicians need to make music. It’s not a choice; it’s a necessity. It’s tremendously clear that these two musicians are yearning for each other, and they are drawn to one another not only through a growing romantic attraction, but because they sense they can make music together. They fulfill a basic need in the other. Due to her encouragement and pushing, he decides to take the plunge and rent a studio to record his songs. This provides the central narrative of the film (rehearsals, finding backup musicians, and laying down the tracks of the album), and it’s very interesting watching this from a “creation of art” perspective. Even if you’re not a huge fan of the songs in question (like myself – they are simply not my style, and I found them a bit too simplistic), you will still appreciate the focus on the craft. The film was described by the director as a musical, and I certainly agree with that. While people do not spontaneously burst into song and dance as you imagine when you think of an MGM musical, there is an awful lot of singing and performing. However, it is all done naturalistically. The guy and girl stop by a music store to perform on the piano during the owner’s lunch hour. Nearly all the other musical numbers flow organically as part of the plot. It’s a different type of musical, and perhaps one of the best examples of music integrated with narrative that I’ve ever seen.
The film manages to avoid several stereotypes of the “struggling musicians fall in love” romantic drama genre. Take the guy, for instance. He works at his father’s vacuum repair store, and his mother has passed away. In a typical movie of this particular genre, the father would be against the guy following his dream of making music, instead pressuring him to follow in the family footsteps. Nope, not here. Dad is nothing but supportive of son’s dreams. Same thing goes for the girl. Her Czech mother and her young daughter live with her in a glorified tenement building, thereby relying on her for their income, but her mother clearly supports her when she is helping the guy record his album. Far too many times, in a film where someone “follows their dreams,” those around them have to be convinced or coerced into supporting the person in question. It’s lovely to instead see functional families who love and respect the guy and girl, allowing them to fulfill their dreams.
Once is a lovely, small, quiet film about two people whose lives intersect for a fortuitous week. It has no pretensions of grandeur, and is rather content to exist peaceably in its small little microcosm. It’s a breath of fresh air and a tremendously touching and poignant film.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10