There is absolutely nothing new in Once, but the way it combines old elements in new ways makes it feel like an accidental film, as though no one involved quite knew what they were doing and were as surprised to find what they had as the audience who eventually saw it. Once is basically a boy-meets-girl, girl-meets-boy story combined with a struggling-artist-finds-his-muse-and-makes-good story. Or, if you prefer, it’s Brief Encounter for the emo set. Also, it’s more-or-less a musical. And if you haven’t stopped reading yet, it’s way, way better than it sounds, easily one of the best films of this young year so far.
It’s one of the few works of art to understand how intimate and vulnerable an act it is to share some small creation you’ve slaved over with someone else.
Once tells the story of a guy (Glen Hansard of the Irish band The Frames) who’s struggling as a street musician, performing songs by Van Morrison and other favorites by day and his own stuff by night when no one’s around to listen. One night, he meets a girl (Markéta Irglová) who tosses him a small sum and then asks if he can fix her vacuum cleaner (his day job is working as a vacuum repairman with his father). When she stops by the next day with her vacuum, he finds out she can play the piano, and the two mesh almost instantly. You can probably surmise where the story goes from there, as the duo begin writing songs and lyrics that are more about their growing feelings for each other, and form a small band to record a demo. But the film isn’t just a simple romantic comedy/musical, as it takes seriously the complications inherent in any relationship between bruised adults (both are nursing old relationships that went bad).
The best thing about Once is how it’s filmed. In general, slightly jittery hand-held cameras are becoming a cliché in independent films (and, often, the looseness of the camera work is used as a way to shrug off sloppy framing). That’s not the case in Once, which is quite obviously filmed with handheld cameras, but also precisely framed by director John Carney (formerly of The Frames). One careful shot closes in on Hansard playing his guitar, pans over to Irglová watching him with a small smile, then pulls back out to see the two of them and their surroundings, while the near-perfect closing shot pans from a sweet familial scene out the window to the world beyond. An early scene where Hansard sits on his bed and plays a new song on his guitar is framed almost exactly like a YouTube video where the subjects perform songs on pianos and guitars. These vaguely YouTube-ian aspects are either carefully planned or the happiest accident ever, as the sheer intimacy of the framing makes every tiny touch between the two leads seem that much more fleeting and delicate. Once is like a collage of found pieces, stitched together into something resembling a narrative: some have criticized this low-fi vibe as getting in the way of the story, but it feels of a piece with the intimacy of the storyline and the indie music milieu.
One of the things that critics often bemoan in the new musicals that have been popular since Moulin Rouge! hit in 2001 is that the editing cuts wildly from shot to shot, MTV-style, never stopping long enough to let the audience take in the dancing or singing in one long take as might have occurred in the classic 1950s MGM musicals. (A notable exception was the “And I Am Telling You I Am Not Going” sequence in Dreamgirls, where it occasionally seemed as if Bill Condon just turned the camera on Jennifer Hudson and got the hell out of the way.) Though there’s absolutely no dancing in Once (the closest the film comes is a sequence where Irglová completes a set of lyrics on the way home from a mini-mart, mouthing the words to herself as the song gradually fills in on the soundtrack), the performance scenes are constructed out of long, single shots. The first collaboration between the two musicians (set in the back of a small music shop, paintings of the great composers watching over the characters like patron saints) is shot from two very basic camera setups with minimal cutting between the two, and yet the intimacy of the moment, coupled with the strength of the performances and the beauty of the song, make for a moment so gorgeous that I simply stopped taking notes and watched for the length of the sequence.
The songs are both one of the movie’s strengths and its Achilles heel. They’re good enough that they make watching some of the harder-to-stomach musical sequences zip along (the aforementioned sequence where Irglová writes the lyrics on the way home being a perfect example). To some degree the songs’ swooning romanticism is typical (and stereotypical), yet they’re performed in such a way that it captures the intense rush that comes when a collaboration on a piece of art rushes past initial fumbling, growing into something serendipitous. But the songs are the movie, to the point where if you don’t like singer-songwriter-y affectations, the film simply may not get into your brain and heart in the way it wants to.
Because, it must be said, the story of Hansard finding his way forward as an artist is nowhere near as interesting as the story of Hansard and Irglová’s relationship. While the songs are good, the film requires us to believe that they’re so good that they simply cause everyone around Hansard to realize what an untapped genius he is. It’s surely the dream of any undiscovered artist, but it stretches credulity too far (particularly when Hansard and his band go into a recording session and win over a previously suspicious producer) and places too much of an emphasis on the songs themselves, which are good but (with the exception of the song played in the first collaboration sequence) not that good. In some ways, this allows the film to sidestep some problems of its genre (I sighed when I saw that Hansard had a father who was suspicious of his talent, but a late scene between the two brims with all of the dreams parents never realize they have for their children until said dreams are staring them in the face), but it also creates situations where random people are basically telling Hansard, “Man, you’re brilliant!” as though the film had simply lost faith in showing us that he’s brilliant (or, at the least, pretty good).
But that’s no matter, surprisingly. The relationship between Hansard and Irglová is so finely wrought (a scene late in the film between the two, set at a piano in a darkened studio, is a textbook case on how to create romantic longing) that it covers up any number of sins rather efficiently. The movie is such a swoon of what might have been that you simply go with the earnestness, with the dreams it leaves you with. It’s that rare cinematic creation—a cast and crew somewhat bashfully handing you a finely-etched portrait and saying, “Here. I made this for you.”
House Next Door contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.