Words fall through me and always fool me, and I can’t react.”
From the moment “Once” begins, it is clear that the experience about to be had is unlike any you’ve had before. A busker sings for his dollar in the street. The quality of the image is grainy; the steadiness of the camera is shaky at best. The day turns into night and the song goes from bright to dark. The passion with which it is sung is almost overwhelming and suddenly borders on off putting. From the manner in which the busker is framed, it isn’t clear whether anyone is there to hear his song but his fervor brushes skepticism aside and declares that the song itself and the satisfaction derived from singing it outweigh the importance of having someone hear it. But someone is listening after all. A young woman from the Czech Republic stands transfixed before our busker on this Dublin street and a spark ignites the flame that gives “Once” its warmth. Writer/Director John Carney removes all convention from the movie musical and creates a film that reads like a well-written love song about two musicians falling in love with each other and the music they create together.
In the early 90’s, Carney left his rock group, The Frames, to pursue a career in filmmaking. The Frames continued on without him and lead singer Glen Hansard eventually took leave to search out new musical ventures, moving from Dublin to the Czech Republic. There he met Marketa Irglova, a classically trained pianist, and they developed a project entitled The Swell Season. Though the two are not linked romantically, their meeting and the music that came out of that became Carney’s inspiration for “Once”. During the week that follows their initial meeting on the street, the two artists, who are never referred to by name in the film, learn to accept that they are inexplicably drawn to each other. Given the chance, a relationship between the two could become one that would help each other grow. He would make a great father figure to her young child and she would drive him to make something of himself. Though “Once”’s tone is simple, these two characters’ lives are not. He has a girlfriend in London he longs to be with but feels he cannot out of obligation to his father in Dublin, while she is still married to an estranged husband whom she is unsure she has a future with. The trick then becomes to remain in the moment with each other and never allow for their relationship to go where it naturally feels it should.
Albeit a modern approach to a movie musical, “Once” is not so modern that it leaves the music behind. Instead, the music becomes the catalyst for love. She is first drawn to him by the sound of his song. He sings it with such passion that it gives her a direct view of his soul. It is not all who are able to show such vulnerability yet when the song ends, he trips over his spoken words and nothing comes out as it should. At first, she almost seems a nuisance to him. It isn’t until he hears the beautiful music she can make with her hands that the glimpse of her soul captures all his attention. Theirs is a mating ritual carried out in song. When one sings or plays, the other listens. When one cannot express the proper sentiment in words, it is music that gets the point across. When the two find themselves alone in a local musical instrument shop, they learn what it means to sing together. In order to do so, they must truly listen to the sound of the other’s voice and fall into the same pace and rhythm of their notes. Their voices, as it turns out, are the perfect compliment to each other. The harmony they create leads into a song that is itself a representation of the love between them, both fragile and pure.
The delicate chemistry between Hansard and Irglova is framed in such a stripped fashion that it only further serves to concretize the genuine sincerity between the two. Almost entirely hand held and lit only with natural light, “Once” seems less like intricate filmmaking and more like layered storytelling, or perhaps more appropriately, song writing. Put simply, “Once” is like a perfectly soft song played acoustically in a park; it seeps into your soul, soothing you as the sun beats down upon your smiling face, allowing for all cynicism to melt away while your reaffirmed belief in love is sung from your mouth.
Review by Joseph Bélanger