The Theory of Chaos

Thursday, February 28, 2008

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Once

Originally published 9/8/07
Full review behind the jump


: John Carney
: story and screenplay by John Carney, music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová
: Martina Niland
: Glen Hansard, Markéta Irglová, Bill Hodnett, Danuse Ktrestova

Once, I thought to myself that so many Hollywood movies boil down to beautiful people posing and making faces. The film industry has made such an expert science out of stimulating the twinkle in the eye, extracting the maximum manly resolve from the heroically jutting jaw, that the application of these visible results of feeling does everything it can to counter the hard truth that what these performers are doing is not earning that feeling. Sometimes when the music is swelling and an actress’s eyes are going wobbly with tears, it comes across not so much an inspiration to feeling as a command.

That’s a long way around to a fairly basic idea, but I think what gives an audience an unforgettable experience is when they have the opportunity to discover something which is simple, and genuine.
Once tells a boy-meets-girl story with an almost total lack of artifice or inflection, with ordinary-looking people placed in ruddy and unglamorous environments, speaking in the overlapping accidental rhythms of people who have not been given any clever dialogue to say. Its microscopic budget means a low-resolution, shaky, blown-out image and night scenes where the actors’ faces are barely discernible.

But for all those overt rejections of the Hollywood method,
Once is a work of extraordinary joy and intimacy, an emotional experience so immediately genuine and accessible that it must be considered one of the best films of the year. Without any of the crutches of fakery, writer/director John Carney is able to focus simply on showing what his boy and girl are doing right before our eyes – making beautiful music, and falling in love.

Glen Hansard, formerly of the Irish band The Frames, plays the boy, a young Dubliner who works in his father’s vacuum repair shop by day and plays guitar on street corners during his off hours. He has a full and yearning voice, a voice that cries with the inevitable sadness of feeling so much, but would not imagine living any other way. Many of his songs are about a love that abandoned him, and the way he obsessively revisits that agony suggests he won’t be over it until he has written enough songs.

Markéta Irglová, Hansard’s musical partner in real life, is the girl, an immigrant from the Czech Republic selling flowers in the street, and stealing into a music shop at lunch time to commune with an unsold piano. Their approach to each other is tentative, spiked with miscommunications, but also somehow helpless. When she asks him to play a song for her, we know his resistance will not last. And we know that when he asks her to sing along, she will, and it will work.

I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie with the patience to simply observe a process the way Once does. We watch Hansard pull out his guitar, check the tuning, page through a notebook to place at the piano, and walk Irglová through the melodies of the song before they begin. Most movies would consider this a dire waste of screen time, but it is so totally authentic, such a clear demonstration of the way these people live with music.

There’s a scene where they are at a party where everyone takes a turn singing. Scattered across the pushed-together tables are empty beer bottles, dozens of them, and the atmosphere of the party is so warm that you cannot convince me some prop crew emptied those bottles and arranged them photogenically – they got there the natural way. Our street singer’s guitar has a hole in it – I believe it got there the natural way, too.

This movie’s creation of a convincing reality is what gives the leap into song so much power – in one scene the girl steals out in the middle of the night to buy batteries because the CD player the boy leant her to listen to his music has burnt out. We watch her walk home under the streetlamps in a nearly unbroken shot as she puts her headphones on and begins to sing. The life going on around her – kids hanging out, a car parallel parking – is never forced away from the mundane, because if it was then we wouldn’t have this hypnotic embodiment of the way music can transport us into a private world.

In the days after they meet, he begins to change his routine, take steps he’d never allowed himself to consider before when it comes to doing something with his music. The power of meeting someone special is when you don’t know if their appearance made you ready to change you life, or because your readiness to change your life helped you make the connection with them. Things seem to be aligning out of inevitability, coming to a perfect harmony. What makes Once so magical is that all this can be communicated with so little. What words pass between them are often so mumbled and minimal, it is as if they have already pacted to leave certain so obvious things unsaid.

Nick Cave gave a famous lecture on love songs, which you can read here. In it, he argued that no love song can be truly great without containing a dark sadness, an awareness of an almost inevitable loss and loneliness. The love story in Once, woven together by so many love songs, is one we sense might not end in happily ever after; but it does what great love songs do, which is say that we are simple people, and flawed, but we have the chance to touch something now which will lift us above everything that might be sad or ordinary about our lives.


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