At once delicate and gritty, wistful and deeply satisfying, John Carney’s Once is a intimate little film that, like a favorite song, you would rather play for someone than try to describe. Not just because the experience loses in the telling, but also because the joy is in the discovery, the in-the-moment immediacy, the barely perceptible tension that leaves you holding your breath for the last twenty minutes, not wanting a single misstep to mar the story.
Not a story so much as an incident that becomes a turning point in two people’s lives, Once relates a brief but memorable encounter between a bearded Dublin street musician (Glen Hansard of the Irish band the Frames) and a young, ponytailed Czech pianist (19-year-old singer-songwriter Markéta Irglová).
He plays guitar on street corners; she notices his playing and is intrigued. She observes that he plays edgy, heartfelt songs only at night; he explains that he makes his money during the day from passersby who only want to hear popular songs they know. He works in his father’s vacuum cleaner repair shop; she has, yes, a broken vacuum cleaner. She plays piano, but doesn’t own one; a shop owner lets her use the store piano during lunch hour. They play together and collaborate on a song.
She is lovely; he is lonely. Both are wounded souls, and their connection is emotional as well as creative, but she has a clear, untroubled sense of who she is, and won’t let things go too far. We never learn their names, and never need to know. It’s not inconceivable that they never learn one another’s names.
Those are the notes, or some of them. What I’ve left out is the music. To call Once a musical is both entirely accurate and thoroughly misleading. It would almost be better to call it the antidote to the musical, or at least the antithesis, whether you love musicals or hate them.
If Once is a musical, then every musician lives in a musical, every painter in an art gallery and every film critic in a film festival. The actual folk-rock they play may or may not be your thing; it doesn’t matter. It’s their thing, and they live and breathe it. Nothing has been staged for our benefit; there’s no offscreen conductor or choreographer in the wings, no show-stopping production number, no artifice or razzle-dazzle. The unrehearsed quality of their first-time collaboration, of his impromptu, semi-comic musical lament on the bus, feels like the real thing. (It just about is. The film was shot in 17 days on a negligible budget.)
Watching Once, one may wonder what the title refers to. Is their chance encounter a once-in-a-lifetime experience? What is or happens once? Is it a fleeting once, like a convergence of celestial bodies? Or is it a lingering once, like true love? As the film draws to a close, it finds the one right note to resolve its lingering tensions. It could easily have gone differently, but it doesn’t misstep — not even once.
Like the personal songs the street musician sings at night, Once doesn’t play to the crowds looking for disposable mainstream fare. It comes from the heart, and for those with an ear out for something new it lingers in the heart and mind.
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I’m glad you appreciated Once. I think it’s a rare person who does appreciate it the way you did though. You hinted at this throughout your review; Once is not a typical romance, musical, or low-budget film. And someone can’t just be inclined toward those types of films to enjoy it.
I’ve talked with people about Once, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it is one of those movies that a lot of people just don’t or aren’t willing to understand or relate to. But, if you do let yourself be pulled in and affected, it’s immensely enjoyable and meaningful. I’m being too vague, but you know what I mean.
Sometimes I wonder what came first, your reviews or my taste in movies. :)
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I always look forward to reading your reviews, as they are consistently insightful and thought-provoking (not to mention that most of the time they’re right).
One thing which I’ve appreciated is that I’ve never seen you criticize, say, American movies just because they’re American, or praise indie movies just because they’ve escaped Hollywood, etc. It doesn’t make any sense to do so, I think, but nevertheless it is often done.
In that light, I’m wondering in what sense to take your final ’graph in your review of Once. The disjunct here seems too neat, and to reflect a stereotype (of there being a difference between “crowds” and more refined viewers) which does not need reinforcing — since in my opinion most people straddle both groups, depending on a host of factors including the time of day. And, of course, “Once” did play to crowds — it reached a vastly greater audience than anyone seems to have expected — but those crowds weren’t looking for disposable entertainment. Clarification, please?
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I saw the trailer for the movie Once and it appeared that the girl was married and had a husband who was coming back. Can you tell me what happened?
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.