The other night I was in the mood for a particular type of film. No definite title was in my mind, I just knew the feeling I was looking for above anything else. I didn’t want anything too polished or stylized, nor did I want anything that was too elusive. What I wanted was a certain realism that you can only get from certain films that make you feel like an observer more than any other. Sure we are observers of all the films we consume but some are perfect for feeling like a snapshot of a moment you could see as you’re walking the street on any ordinary day. I wanted this particular feeling and so I reached for Once (2007), I got that and so much more.
Once is directed by John Carney who beyond directing, producing and writing is also a lyricist and was once a member of The Frames band. Fitting credentials for the mind behind this touching romantic-drama musical. Carney understands film but he equally understands music and he blends the two mediums together and the result we are given is pure perfection. I should also call this a “music film” instead of a “musical” which I believe is much more fitting. Once stars Glen Hansard as the guy and Markéta Irglová as the girl who this film revolves around. We never do learn their names, to us they are just a guy and a girl who meet and share a handful of enlightening days together.
I came upon this film based off the knowledge of someone who I care about deeply loving it (you know who you are). You could say I fell in love with the main song before I fell in love with the film. I listened to “Falling Slowly” a few months ago and it was one of the most exquisite songs I had heard in quite some time. In my mind this song in particular does more than any trailer could ever do in encapsulating and luring someone to the film. If you haven’t heard it I highly recommend you go now and give this Oscar-winning song a listen. Your ears and especially your heart will thank you. It is a truly romantic song and I felt that deeply as now whenever I hear it my heart swells with joy. The lyrics, the duet and the composition come together so perfectly. Personally I feel it to be a very romantic song but it is also very encouraging and uplifting to the spirit. I’ve spent enough time praising the song so now on to the movie…
We meet the guy first as he is standing on a bustling Dublin street outside the shops, few seem to be paying him any attention but he strums his guitar and sings as if every person nearby is an attentive audience. Placed on the ground is his guitar case which is open to any change from any appreciative strangers. Of course this also draws the attention of a random man who attempts to steal his meager earnings and run off leading to a very amusing chase to open the film. The guy does manage to retrieve his case and the small amount of money in it with less hard feelings and more annoyance to the man who tried to steal from him. Sure he is busking but we soon learn the craft is more important to him and letting that out into the world, even a petty thief can’t tarnish that.
As day fades into night we finally meet the girl. The once busy streets of earlier are now practically empty as the guy passionately plays on, lit only by the varied colored lights of the storefronts in the darkness. Then we see her as she comes forward and comments on his performance with admiration as well as questions. At first the guy almost seems a bit annoyed that she is asking all these things of him but soon relents. The song she came in on was a romantic song written for a girl he once was involved with, she picks up on this and soon draws out of him that this is in fact the origin of the song. They banter with each other a bit and soon the distance that is found between strangers begins to go away. She says she likes the sound of his personal stuff though he says the people only care to hear covers of well-known songs. She raises her eyes a bit asking if money is the only reason he does this, the guy pauses for a moment and we know, like the girl, that the songs mean more than the profit. After finding out that he works in his father’s vacuum repair shop she seemingly lights up and says that she just happens to have a vacuum in need of repair. From here we are truly in step with these two and are welcomed to come along and observe the brief time they will share together.
The next day starts following a similar pattern as the day before. Once more the guy is back on the street, guitar in hand and singing out to the people who pass him by. Soon the girl arrives pulling her broken down vacuum behind her just as she said she would. Yet again the guy seems slightly annoyed by her appearance, going on to say that he can’t fix it right then and there. She doesn’t balk though and implores him to let her come on his break with him and this is when the special quiet magic of the film begins. The girl brings the guy along with her to a music store where she is allowed to play piano by the owner since she doesn’t have one of her own. The music shop is empty and the older gentleman at the counter nods at them as the go to the back. Settling down at a piano the girl asks the guy if he would care to play one of his songs with her. At first there is a hesitation but soon the barrier is worked past and he gently guides her along in getting a feel for the song at hand which is “Falling Slowly”.
I like to think that this sequence in particular marks the time between the before and after of the film. As the audience we fall in love with the song and it is hard to miss a certain shift in the air that seems to happen between the guy and the girl, all this playing perfectly as the song ebbs and flows along. Starting out soft the music continues and builds until we are introduced to the swell of the chorus. Music can be an extremely powerful thing and that fact is not lost on us here. Our hearts become full with the combined and delicate beauty found in the lyrics as the two play. If it isn’t too cliché to say by the time the song fades we can’t help but feel that what we have seen is two souls falling slowly whether they fully realize that or not. Afterwards something feels subtly different. A lightness is found when they both look at each other in the contentment of performing a song together even if it was in a quiet music shop, their only audience being the elderly gentleman at the counter who we see smile whilst they played as if he feels what we the viewer has felt as well.
But of course such things are not fully obvious to the two people in question and in a way there is a slight melancholic tone running underneath through the film. We the viewer may not want to accept it but as we begin to fall for this pair we ignore the ticking clock behind our shoulder. Something that whispers and reminds us that like sand through an hourglass these two will inevitably part and the time they shared will be over whether we want that or not.
After spending a good amount of time together and realizing their shared passion for music it is only natural for the guy to ask the girl if she would be open to record a few demo tracks before he goes to London. London, the city with bigger opportunities and also the city where his ex-girlfriend now resides. Speaking of his past relationship we get a musical interlude in the film comprised of home video footage of their coupling set to the song, “Lies”. In the jittery and nostalgic tinged snapshots we see their time together filled with smiles and sun dappled days.
But the guy isn’t the only one with a past as the girl divulges that she is married though her husband didn’t follow her and that they are practically separated. Looking out over the water on one of their subsequent days spent together she muses on how the marriage didn’t really work and only really happened because she got pregnant. Going on to say that she is fine on her own before saying that despite that she doesn’t want her daughter to grow up without a father figure. Although she doesn’t say it outright you can see that she is grappling between what she should do and what she wants to do. The guy stands by silently letting her say what she needs to about it all. After a brief moment he turns and asks her how to say if she still loves him in her native tongue which is Czech. She repeats the question in the language to which he implores her to say if she does. She pauses the goes on to say “Miluji tebe” which translates to “I love you”… Though when he asks what she said exactly she coyly refuses to translate and leaves it at that.
Finally after securing the necessary details to move forward quickly with the demo they recruit other street musicians to form a makeshift band to provide further instrumentals on the tracks. In the studio we meet a very cynical engineer who we can tell isn’t easily impressed and has probably seen his fair share of up and comers. He goes along with the motions since its his job but soon as the group starts bringing the music to life his attitude changes. The group soon warms up and find their own groove as the lay out track after track. The all night session starts to wind down and during a brief break the girl sneaks off and finds a lone piano in a quiet and dark room. The guy follows behind and sits with her and encourages her to show him some of her own ideas.
At first the girl is a little hesitant, saying that they aren’t full songs and more ideas she has in her mind but with some gentle pushing she softly plays a simple ballad. It is an emotional song and during it she has to abruptly stop when overcome with tears. Calming down soon after the guy and girl sit closely, just talking in the dimly lit room. There is at once both a gentleness and pain to this scene as I watched. They talk of going to London together and recording an album that would be their own. Smiles spread across their faces and the excitement that is only found in the possibilities of following one’s dreams flash across their faces. But soon like a cloud passing across the moon the dream evaporates as if they were reminded that this can’t really be and was probably nothing more than an errant wish. The small aspirations just shared fade as they go back to continue work on the songs and continue on with life as it is.
Daylight starts breaking when the songs and production are finally finished and complete. The engineer turns to the group saying he just wants to go out and test the sound in a car stereo to get another feel that can’t be provided by perfected studio speakers. Basically listening to the music as the average person would and so starts what is possibly one of my favorite sequences in the movie. Morning is just starting as the misfit group pile into the small car with some riding in the open trunk. Smiles can be seen all around as they drive and knowing what they are listening to is a product of their hard work. Pulling off on the shoreline of a smile beach they all pour out and a gleeful and impromptu game of frisbee breaks out among the guy, the girl, the members of the band and also the engineer. It is just a small moment of pure unfiltered joy and as the viewer you feel that joy just as strongly as if you were another person tagging along. Soon things begin to go back to business as usual and coming back to the studio they all part ways outside on the street as the guy is handed his finalized demo tracks. This part just really stuck with me. Something about the fraternity found in the group and the bond made. Seeing this but knowing as they part ways that they likely will never see each other ever again. Nothing remaining of the time shared amongst them other than the gorgeous music that was brought to life with a little help from each of them to get the final product. But again it is a very bittersweet goodbye and soon we will come to find that this is something we should get used to and prepared for. Because the time creating the music is coming to and end but so is the time shared between the guy and the girl.
We end where we began and that is with the guy and the girl. Attempting to make the time last just a bit longer the guy invites her back to his place but the girl declines at first. They lightly talk of what is to come and the guy will soon be going to London and the girl mentions her husband is on his way to be with her and her daughter. After some prodding she finally agrees to stop by his place later… When she fails to show up it almost feels like something we knew would happen. As the viewer we are almost sobered up to the fact we won’t be getting the end we want for these two. We may not like it but we see it. The day in question arrives and one last attempt to see the girl fails as the guy just misses her. Knowing he can’t stay he does the next best thing which is to leave something with her and that is a piano of her own.
“Falling Slowly” starts playing once more over the final sequence of the film as we say goodbye to these two. It is hard to not feel a pain in your chest during this. Something somehow feels incomplete. It is a hard feeling to describe or properly put into words. But the feeling is somehow best put in the final shot of the film. Sitting at her new piano in her crowded apartment the girl is surrounded by the fellow residents watching the shared television, her mother in the kitchen and her newly arrived husband playing with their daughter. It is not an awful scenario but somehow you can’t help but worry that her life may not move far beyond this quiet domestic scene. She trails her fingers along the keys and then her hands fall in her lap as her gaze travels out the open window. The camera starts to pull away but her glance stays focused on the outside. Is it a look of contemplation? Contentment? Waiting?…. Regret? We don’t know but if the ending had to be of this tone there could be no better way to cap it off than with this shot. As she gets smaller in our vision the familiar rise in the song sweeps up our heart like it did not too long ago. Then we felt an optimism and while still beautiful that feeling is now bittersweet.
I read that on an episode of the now defunct Ebert & Roeper from 2007 a guest critic named Michael Philips referred to it as “the Brief Encounter (1945) of the 21st Century”. This struck me as quite a good comparison which you might see too if you have had the privilege of seeing the solemnly beautifully David Lean film which was an adaptation of the Noel Coward novel of the same name. True, Once may not be as generous with its romantic leanings like Brief Encounter was but the heart of each film’s stories is much the same. Being made aware of this comparison I couldn’t help but see the lightest shades of Laura and Alec in the girl and the guy. The girl with her family responsibilities and a distant husband who she doesn’t feel a close bond to and the guy with his ex-girlfriend who still resides in the shadows that cheated on him behind his back. The lyrics may be different but the music is the same and the feelings from both strike straight to the heart when two people so perfect for each other can never be. Just a light musing on the matter but the comparison was something I could not ignore and find quite poignant.
As a viewer of film it is hard to not imagine what could happen after the credits roll. Wishful thinking? Maybe… Maybe not. That is for you and every individual viewer to decide. Somehow though it feels as if the guy and the girl will meet again, possibly one day, or maybe they won’t and we should just be grateful to the brief time we were given. Maybe all we can hope for is that on the radio or out and about the girl may hear the familiar songs and smile before moving along. Once, beyond its uniqueness, simplicity and flawless soundtrack can also possibly be read as a contemplation on life and the pursuit of goals, dreams and as cliché as it may sound… happiness. Maybe I’m just letting my more hopeful side get away from me but hear me out. Life is a funny thing and we are only given so much time here. As we go along we make choices and sometimes feel as if the things we want to do are not right but the practical way is best. Like the girl at the end after saying she’s going to try again with her husband and with a somewhat passive face says “It’s for the best.”. But if I can say, maybe just maybe we should lean into where our happiness leads us and avoid the regrets and “what ifs?” that haunt so many people in the world.
Final Grade ~ A+