Few movies have the courage to follow real characters into their lives. There are always the dark and boring places that really have little narrative value, but help explain a person’s life all the same.
Once follows two individuals through a week in Dublin. They meet by chance, as a young lady observes a streetside busker pour his heart out through a guitar, and approaches him. The camera draws us in as his music drew her. She asks him why he only plays original music at night. They make small talk that isn’t small. There isn’t a romantic attraction, just curiosity.
Their paths cross again, and they find their musical abilities overlap, and in fact are complementary. She plays piano, and sings, but keeps her own songs to herself. In a scene of stunningly simple camerawork, the two form an indelible bond of friendship over a song he has written. Carney focuses on the interaction between the musicians and not on either one of them individually.
Maybe they each want something more. Maybe there is love there, waiting to be found. But maybe this just isn’t the right time for either one of them. Their new friendship opens up old wounds for both, but new possibilities as well.
Once was directed by John Carney and stars Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova as the musical pair whose names are never mentioned. We observe them in their everyday lives: fixing vacuums, cleaning homes, running errands. Their daily routine and the mundane nature of it becomes very real to us.
He’s lonely, and she’s an optimist about everyone but herself. She inspires him to go to London to chase the girl that broke his heart. He inspires her to open up and embrace the pain she bottles up through music.
The best sequences in the movie are where these two relate to each other through their music. He jokingly retells the story of his break-up through a song titled “Broken-Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy”. She walks the dark Dublin streets late at night crafting lyrics that reveal her marriage’s failings, set to one of his compositions. There is an honesty to how musicians ply their craft here. It is solitary work, inspired by the smallest of observances. And these two share that loneliness with one another.
She convinces him to record a few songs before heading to London, leading to the movie’s funniest scene, where it is revealed that everyone once wanted to pursue their passions. In the recording studio, a jaded sound engineer laments that he has to babysit amateurs. Then something happens. Something magical. Something authentic, real and unforced. This is what music should be. And that engineer knows damn well to perk up and listen.
The film is carried by the strong performances of its leads, and the courage of the filmmaker not to make the ending a tidy one. The best of romance films don’t have happy endings, they have ones that result in the characters ending up where they belong. Sometimes that means with somebody else. That doesn’t make their journey together any less important.
When I first saw Once in theaters, it floored me. Watching it again over ten years later, knowing the soundtrack almost by heart now, I found myself involved in the musical sequences and the depth of the lyricism. There is not a surplus of dialogue in the film, and in the tradition of great movie musicals (which this film is nothing like), these lyrics provide exposition to fill in the gaps. One would have to believe romance to be completely dead in this world to not be entranced by these moments.
Once is a touching film that reminds us that even when we believe we are at our worst, we have something to offer someone else. It is sometimes the belief of that someone else that finally gives us the strength to move forward, even if that may mean doing so without them.