Glen Hansard, Marketa Irglova
Such a weird and wonderful thing, love is.
"Once," winner of the World Cinema Audience Award at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, is, without a doubt, the finest musical love story ever captured on film...and yet, in a strange and amazing way, "Once" isn't really even about love at all. It is a film about falling in love, being in love, longing for love, and grieving lost love. "Once" is a musical journey through those simple, little moments in our everyday life that change our minds and heal our hearts and forever alter the very essence of our being.
"Once," written and directed by Irish television director John Carney, is the rarest of cinematic musicals...a film that chooses intimacy over exhibition, vulnerability over bravado and simplicity even when it seems as if the storyline is ready to explode.
Instead, with seemingly infinite patience, Carney trusts his characters, his actors, his story and his camera to capture every moment that his audience truly needs to experience. Without exception, Carney's patience pays off with the most natural, casual, emotional and heartbreaking joyful film in years.
After three days of contemplating and thinking and feeling and processing and remembering and finding myself near tears every single time I remember the music and memories of "Once," there is no other conclusion I can possibly reach.
"Once" is perfect.
It is not perfect, perhaps, in the American cinematic sense. One can, purely intellectually, look at the naturalistic camera work of Tim Fleming and be unnerved, even jolted. Yet, as I have reflected and reflected and reflected upon "Once," these camera shots come back to haunt me in the way that I remember the faces and the gestures and the wobbling of the camera along with the warblings of the heart. In a sense, even this seemingly imperfect camera work is, in fact, so completely perfect for a story about the imperfections of life and love and the ways in which we expose ourselves to hopes and dreams, fears and failures in our daily lives. In many ways, it is a feeling similar to that I experienced in Zach Braff's "Garden State," a film that unnerved me during its first 20 minutes so greatly that I began to predict a mediocre film at best. Yet, upon reflection and memory and processing began to realize that Braff had accomplished exactly the feeling he sought to create...and, damn, it made me uncomfortable. So, too, it is with "Once," a film so uncomfortably intimate at times and heartbreakingly real that as the two lead characters dance awkwardly through the ins and outs of love the audience, as well, begins to fall deeply in love with these wondrous yet wounded souls.
"Once" is the simple story of a 30ish street musician (Glen Hansard, lead singer of Irish band "The Frames") and a younger Czech immigrant (Marketa Irglova, a Czech musician) who can best be described as a street seller of newspapers, flowers and miscellaneous things. Both characters, never named in the film, are walking wounded carrying with them the baggage of their lives, a symbolism captured simply yet beautifully in the film's first few moments.
Hansard, as The Guy, is the sort of chap that nearly any woman would fall in love with instantly. He's ruggedly handsome with a boyish charm, emotionally available and the sort of man who would paint a woman's toenails while writing her love songs. Indeed, he was in love once, a love captured in one of the most beautiful, symphonic flashbacks that made one instantly ache for this man who had been so betrayed and yet had become utterly defeated by it and now worked days in his father's vacuum cleaner repair shop while singing for change on the street corners of Dublin. In only his second film (the first being as a member of the band in the 1991 film, "The Commitments"), Hansard offers a dramatic and musical performance for the ages perfectly blending strength, vulnerability, innocence, confusion, despair and determination. Hansard's performance is the finest musical performance I have ever witnessed.
Then, there is The Girl. Irglova, who was a mere 17-years-old when "Once" was filmed, is seemingly the more grounded of the two and, yet, equally as wounded in ways that are more slowly revealed throughout the film. Irglova's Girl is the sort of young woman who seems both awkwardly shy and yet almost hilariously forward in her desire to get to know this obviously hurting musician. While those around her walk by as he surrenders himself to the songs with nary a glance, she listens, observes and inquires in both ways endearing and off-putting.
Before long, of course, the two connect over the music in their hearts and the music that simply must be expressed in their daily lives. It sounds, perhaps, a bit cliche' and yet it never becomes a cliche' in "Once"...These two find in each other the strength they need to become the persons they are truly meant to be.
It is this simple storyline, and Carney's devotion to it, that makes "Once" such a wonderful and refreshing film. In American cinema, the two would fall in love, make love, face their obstacles and, somehow, the world would all be right again. Yet, how often does life really work that way? Furthermore, why should it? Is it really only lovers that teach us who we need to be?
"Once" is about those little moments of salvation that we find when, somehow, we find ourselves connected to another human being who loves us, believes in us, finds something in us that we may have even believed to be long gone...These human beings aren't just our lovers, but our friends or our family or, yes, even our lovers or our spouses. "Once" isn't about sex or relationships or style or happy endings even...it's about love in all its glorious and unpredictable profundity.
In its own special way, "Once" offers a retro stylishness that somehow combines naturalism with an almost magical nature most beautifully captured in a late night journey to the corner market. I sit here smiling even as I remember it now.
Likewise, this naturalism is brought to wondrous life in song after song, not so much choreographed as photographically arranged, with words and music that so beautifully blend with the scenery, the action, the characters and the script. Hansard himself writes nearly all the songs in the film, and they can be found on the latest release from The Frames, "The Cost," a CD I purchased immediately following the film.
Recently, I experienced one of these little moments of salvation. It is a time I found myself reflecting upon as I have remembered the gentleness and innocence of "Once" over the past 72 hours. While this was, by no means, the only little moment of salvation I had ever experienced it was, perhaps, one of the most unexpected. It was, much like is present here, simple in its presentation...a current classmate of mine chooses to visit my home during a two-week campus intensive. The agenda, I suppose, was preparing my home for an open house...and, yet, in the course of our visit I found myself time and again caught off guard by the generosity, the honesty, the trust and, most powerfully, an innocence that seemed to begin chiseling away at my wounded facade.
So it is with "Once," a simple miracle of a film that life isn't always about the passionate embraces or the romantic endings. Sometimes, life is about the little moments of salvation when love touches us so deeply that we get a little bit closer to becoming the person we're really meant to be and, yes, you begin to be loved back to life again.
"Once" is the kind of film that will make you believe in love all over again.
- Richard Propes
The Independent Critic