Glen Hansard, Marketa Irglova, Geoff Minogue
Directed by John Carney
So, is it a musical or isn’t it?” my girlfriend asked. The buzz surrounding Once—a fevered murmur of excitement that began last January at the Sundance Film Festival, where this unheralded Irish romance won the Audience Award in the World Cinema section—had finally reached her, but she was wary. Like many people nowadays, Kathleen loves music and loves drama, but she doesn’t much frequent the intersections where the two meet; the notion of characters abruptly bursting into song at regular intervals seems inherently silly to her. She didn’t want to see any damn musical, no matter how universally acclaimed.
Fortunately, I was able to reassure her. Written and directed by former Frames bassist John Carney, Once is a musical expressly designed for people who think they hate musicals—a movie that takes full advantage of the genre’s expressionistic power, conveying heightened emotions entirely via libretto, while at the same time remaining firmly grounded in gritty, mundane reality. Carney’s means of achieving this apparent contradiction is refreshingly simple: Both of his lead characters are aspiring musicians, and their week-long relationship is ostensibly a musical collaboration, as they jointly compose, arrange and record a demo. Nobody ever really bursts into song in Once—it’s more as if they stumble into song, tentative and uncertain, finding their confidence and their passion as they go along. This approach lacks the razzle-dazzle of the classic musical, but it has an endearingly awkward charm of its own.
Carney establishes his conceit right at the outset, discovering our hero, who’s never given a name—the credits just call him Guy, and I guess I will, too—busking on the streets of Dublin. Observing at first from a distance, we see Guy perform an entire song, singing and strumming with an impassioned fury that’s clearly motivated by more than the need for spare change. (The actor is Glen Hansard, founder of The Frames; he also played guitarist Outspan Foster in the last notable Irish quasi-musical, 1991’s The Commitments.) We’re not his only appreciative audience, however—Guy has also attracted the attention of Girl (Markéta Irglová), a young Czech immigrant who sells flowers in the same neighborhood. The two have an immediate and brazenly flirtatious rapport, but Girl has a husband back in the Republic and Guy is still pining for an ex who moved to London; his one pathetic attempt at a move is brusquely rebuffed. But she sings and plays piano, and he’s trying to score a record contract, and so they channel their unspoken feelings for each other into a series of tender, bruised duets.
Hansard and Irglová wrote all of Once’s original music—indeed, most of the songs are taken from an album they recorded together last year, The Swell Season. That I didn’t immediately rush out to buy that album, or the film’s original soundtrack, has a lot to do with why this review is less rapturous than some others you might have encountered. Hansard plays a mean guitar, and his voice, normally an undistinguished baritone, becomes an electrifying wail when he pushes it into its upper register; he has enough talent to make me curious about The Frames. But these particular songs are melodically slack, and Irglová, unlike Hansard, doesn’t possess enough native charisma to sell them—her main function seems to be to soften his edge. I found myself becoming annoyed when the callous recording engineer (Geoff Minogue), who’d initially bitched on the phone to a friend about having to waste his weekend with a bunch of no-talent losers, suddenly perks up in the control room as if he’s hearing Dylan go electric at Newport.
Still, even if the songs themselves aren’t especially memorable, it’s impossible not to respond to the evident sincerity with which they’re performed, and to the tremulous emotions they conceal. More than anything else, Once nails the commingled joy and regret of finding a potential soulmate at precisely the wrong moment in your life, and the challenge involved in letting your phantom lover know how you feel without crossing the invisible line that divides you. It’s the very definition of bittersweet. What can one do except croon?