A romance broken down to its basic elements, rebuilt with the utmost conviction, and then given a much more forward-thinking ending than you might expect: this is Once, a modern musical set in Dublin where intimacy is expressed through devotion and attention, not through shed clothes. Two people become acquainted, spend time with one another, work hard to create something greater than what either could have done alone, and respect and appreciate one another no matter where their lives happen to lead. And sometimes that’s all a movie needs to be an utter success.
Words fall through me
A street musician is playing a rousing song on his guitar in the middle of the day, when a smoker stops to tie his shoes and then runs off with the guy’s property. The musician is right to have panicked, making for an action-packed start to what is otherwise a very gentle movie, but he does eventually get his items returned amicably. Like most of the characters in this film, he (real-life Irish musician Glen Hansard) is not named, nor is his eventual co-lead, played by Czech musician Markéta Irglová. The character count is small and manageable either way, and most of these people feel important to the story and are fun to watch.
While “Glen” is performing another song during the late evening, a girl walks up to him and applauds. She apparently sees him every day, but he never plays this particular song–why not? During the day, the man sticks to songs people will know, so they’ll give him money for playing. He’s not a slacker or a wish-fulfillment vehicle, though: the son moved back in with his father after his mother’s passing, and the two men work diligently in the elder’s vacuum-repair shop. Likewise, she isn’t one to take advantage of another’s generosity, insisting on paying her new acquaintance for his repair work. Though some events feel a bit contrived, such as the girl of course having a vacuum that needs fixing, this is a movie that avoids cheese, where opportunities must be worked for and don’t just fall into the laps of the desiring.
Catherine is the girl who got away; our hero loved her, lost her, and devotes much of his music to her, but he’s not quite sure if he wants her back. Despite being generally absent, she remains important to her ex’s developmental arc and is never discarded as romance fuel for the budding couple the film spends much of its time on. The Girl’s father taught her the piano before he died, and she plays as beautifully as her new friend does. She demonstrates a bit of Mendelssohn for him, and the camera makes his look of enchantment plain to see: the film’s rather minimalist storytelling style keeps the dialogue free of clutter.
They then begin to play Falling Slowly. “Oh, how cute,” I think to myself. “It’s been a while since I’ve heard that song.” That version was probably one of the many covers, as this song was written by this film’s stars and earned an Academy Award. Hansard and Irglová share a beautiful harmony; they both put all that they have into their singing, and for Hansard this can sometimes give his voice an extreme intensity that sounds almost like yelling. A misunderstanding of intentions nearly leads to disaster for their growing friendship but sows the seeds for the rest of their story.
The little cracks, they escalated
The girl introduces the guy to her mother and to her daughter, Ivonka. The women speak Czech to one another, and the lack of subtitles forces the audience to depend as much on these girls for friendly and genial translation as the guy does. The older woman does think her own daughter’s new friend is handsome, though. Fortunately for the younger, she has an opportunity to write lyrics for said friend’s new song.
Much of Once’s music is laid over scenes of people simply living their lives, as these characters don’t just randomly break out into song and dance in public. Dublin as seen throughout the movie is simply beautiful, to the point where even scenes of people walking around late at night become fine art, and if dimly lit cities and colorful daytime stores are something you find romantic, you will devour this movie’s cinematography. The camera’s lack of steadiness makes the film almost feel like a home movie, and while some songs go on for slightly too long, the two leads are consistently excellent. The music also sounds amazing over headphones, as the main girl’s voice sounds like she’s actually in front of the viewer, while the guitar and other instruments play in the viewer’s ears.
The film keeps its central romantic and musical relationships growing, eventually gaining the involvement of a financial loan and a recording studio. Despite this, other than an important twist every so often, there isn’t really a plot, nor is there any epic, high-stakes drama or third-act collapse that forces some sort of race against time to avert catastrophe. Instead, some lovely party scenes showcase various random individuals singing songs of their own choice, including a number of traditional pieces; after the abrupt beginning, the movie as a whole greatly benefits from its persistently gentle demeanor. Some stories establish grand story frameworks and immensely detailed worlds, yet they distinguish themselves on the strength of a few small-scale but exquisitely written moments. Once is built on those moments, and while few of them feel unique, many of them feel special.
Other than a massive number of F-words and a few other profanities clumped erratically throughout the film, the dialogue and character interactions are a joy to behold. This is a romance built not on shallow sensuality–which is actually brought up and dissected–but on the responsibility that both of the story’s leads are given for not tearing apart their own lives just to be with one another. This man and woman are not perfect people, with the former treating his father’s motorbike irresponsibly and the latter raiding her daughter’s piggy bank to buy batteries, but they deeply care for one another and each other’s well-being. The girl’s arc is especially commendable since even in the midst of her deepest anguish, she does not run from her difficulties but does everything in her power to correct them. The movie’s unexpected ending powerfully evokes suspense and a desire for closure before leaving the audience an amazingly sweet present.
Conclusion: Someone to fall upon
Once feels almost like a case study of how to design a classic romance, even as certain subtle details take its approach far away from the ordinary. This is not a movie that feels like it throws away the potential of its story or characters just to force a particular outcome.
The narrative seems to truly challenge the audience, which is something I always welcome in romantic stories, since they can otherwise risklosing their value if their establishing events seem too convenient.
The soundtrack is of course wonderful, and the low-budget production values are given wonderful use. Despite some content issues with language and the occasional weird sexual reference (the Fair City mini-scene feeling like a particularly random advertisement for that soap opera), Once really does feel like a mature movie that accepts its protagonists as imperfect people but continually encourages them to learn and grow, and for that, this little piece of Ireland is quite a remarkable treat.
Image sources (property of Fox Searchlight Pictures, Summit Entertainment, and Samson Films)