dir: John Carney
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How many times are you likely to watch this flick, if at all? Once. How many times will you listen to the CD? Once. How many times will you hear the Oscar-winning song Falling Slowly that features in the film and is likely going to be used in every ad trying to sell everything from haemorrhoid creams to fighter jets and cheese-in-a-can? Probably dozens of times.
Once is a very simple, very unambitious flick that is nonetheless quite charming. It is billed as a romance, but really, it’s about two people who meet, sing and play some songs together, and that’s it. There’s really not much else to it.
The story, such as it is, looks at The Guy (Glen Hansard) who repairs vacuum cleaners in his dad’s shop. He also busks on the streets singing his own songs. In an amusing exchange to open proceedings, he spies a junkie who looks like he’s going to try to steal the change dropped on his guitar cover. When the junkie does what is expected of him, and The Guy has to chase him down, it seems like the junkie and the Guy know each other quite well.
The Guy meets The Girl (Marketa Irglova), a Czech immigrant with a daughter and some musical ability. Guy and Girl are brought together by their love of music, but not by any romantic connection. Though they might, in an ideal world, be able to get drunk and fuck like crazed weasels, in their actual world, there are too many obstacles to achieving this at the start.
Mainly it’s the people they were formerly involved with who seem to fuel their music, independently and together. He writes melodic songs of aching longing and regret, and she writes lyrics about an aching desire to be ‘satisfied’, which, I’m not sure, means she’s hoping her former lover can learn some new techniques from the internets or something.
He longs for a woman in London who treated him like shit, and she has nebulous problems with the father of her child, back in the Czech Republic. When, one night, in the most excruciatingly painful way, he asks her if she wants to stay the night, with a look of abject desperation on his face, it’s just agonising. It’s about the only moment that really stands out acting-wise in the whole movie, since neither of them or most of the other actors are professionals or really seem like they’re acting that much.
The other moment involves someone yelling “It’s fucking brilliant!” which really made me laugh.
It doesn’t hurt the flick at all. There’s a naturalistic, lo-fi feel to the whole proceedings, with a bare-bones script that avoids melodrama or big dramatic set pieces. They’re just people doing their thing, and then the flick ends.
It’s really that simple. I wouldn’t expect people to get too much out of it unless they enjoy watching the protagonists, who don’t even have the luxury of names, sing and play their songs. The songs themselves are all right. Hansard is a pretty good song-writer of low-key pop gems, and they do a good enough job of performing them, most memorably in a music store.
At some point, especially the point where the Guy has been rebuffed and spent a song’s length mooning over his distant girl, he decides he needs to record some songs and move to London in order to make his way in the music world. Considering the fact that the Guy is the lead singer of the band The Frames, no part of this movie should be seen or interpreted as being autobiographical.
But, by the same token, there is much to love about this film. As simple as the story is, it doesn’t need much more to be enjoyed. Two people love music, make music, and that’s it. It’s a romance only in the sense that there is a bit of an acknowledgement that there’s something between them, but that the responsibilities of their lives are too important to cast aside. In other words, these are mature people, despite their age differences, making mature decisions. Unlike the rest of us with loose morals and low impulse control who probably would have been going at it from the opening credits onwards.
It makes for a different kind of romance, where these accomplished musicians perhaps sublimate their passion or desires into their music, into the music they play together as well. The first moment where I thought maybe they were more than just friends and music lovers is during a dinner with friends where the people attending have to “pay” for their dinner by performing. There’s a look she gives him, where, I guess maybe she was falling for The Guy.
He, mostly, except when he’s playing music, which is when he’s all business, looks at her like he’s a sad puppy, so any number of things could be going on in his mind.
The songs are, on the most part, spare and beautiful. They are well integrated (on the most part) into the movie, and make this one of the only movies you’ll ever hear called a musical that doesn’t make me want to kill myself and everyone near me.
Falling Slowly and Lies get a good going-over, as do some of the other songs from The Swell Season, the album Glen and Marketa recorded just prior to the making of the film. But on top of that, even though this is a flick that does not purport to go into the nitty-gritty of songwriting, unlike something like Hustle and Flow, as an example, there is a deep love of music here which you won’t get in the vast majority of other flicks that pretend to be about it.
Suffice it to say, there is far more reverence in a flick like Once for how simple music touches, elevates and unites people, and can tell more of a story, than any of the biopics about famous musicians you care to mention. In Once you watch people playing a song to play a song, and doing it well. In Walk the Line, the origins of a song like Walk the Line is “explained” by having a character played by Reese Witherspoon tell a drunken Joaquin Phoenix and friends that they’re “not Walking the Line.” And that’s it.
How goddamn deep and significant is that. Notice there wasn’t a question mark at the end of that last sentence. Once is still an impossibly light and brief confection; there’s nothing deeply significant about the whole thing, but it is adorable in some ways. Finding out subsequently that Marketa and Glen are in a relationship now doesn’t change my feelings about the flick in the least, but it kinda makes more sense.
I loved it, but I wasn’t expecting anything from it. Glen is a decent musician and singer/songwriter, Marketa is a wonderful singer, musician and adorable, and they work together beautifully. The flick, though it looks like it was filmed with a mobile phone camera, is as charming as it is low-key. I loved it, but then again, I’m the most cynical and romantic soul any of you are likely to ever know.
8 times the Guy should have kicked that London chick to the curb out of 10
“Fuck you, batteries.” - Once