Once: More with Feeling

Once is a lovely independent film (mentioned in several Best Films of 2007 lists) that tells a simple, affecting story of two people who find each other through music, love each other and what they express, and mutually, wordlessly agree to follow the path their lives have already established (see fox search light). Their choices take them away from each other, yet leave them with the poignant, wistful residue of their musical intimacy and affection.

Named only “Guy” and “Girl,” as though they’re an archetypal heterosexual couple playing out a tale that’s both mythic and utterly, appealingly ordinary, the couple is played by non-actors in simple and appealing performances. Both performers—Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, who were friends before filming began—are actually musicians, an appropriate casting choice, since music is what unites them and drives the film.

Writer/director John Carney is also a musician, whose understanding of how music moves people suffuses his unobtrusive filmmaking. Shot with mostly hand-held, low tech cameras in natural light situations, Carney paints the movie with an atmospheric earnestness that enhances the casual pleasure of the couple’s relationship.

Once feels like a casual documentary recording of a few weeks in the life of an Irish street musician and the young Czech immigrant to Dublin who’s attracted to his music when she hears him playing on a deserted street in a commercial area at night. During the day, the guy panders to the crowd he hopes will fill his open guitar case, but at night, he takes advantage of the flattering acoustics of his chosen alley (between a Laura Ashley store and another boutique) to howl his own music, filled with the heartache and ambivalence of his girlfriend’s recent sexual betrayal.

Girl is attracted by something she mutual hears in his lyrics, something primal, unguarded, and familiar in his tone, in the way he closes his eyes when he sings, and later, in the way his battered guitar seems an extension of himself, whether slung from a strap around his neck or carried like a talisman in a nylon case on his back.

To support his music habit, Guy works in his father’s vacuum cleaner repair shop, a fortuitous coincidence that Girl exploits by asking if he can fix her broken machine. The visually charming first few scenes follow the couple through Dublin streets as she pulls the canister cleaner along by its hose.

Carney establishes the cozy, quotidian domesticity of the girl’s life, which she shares in a small, cramped apartment with her two-year-old daughter and her widowed mother, who barely speaks English, but sews continually and cooks heartily.

The girl and her mother share their television—which she proudly tells Guy is the only set in their apartment building—with various young men who cram together on their couch to watch soccer and soap operas. Carney films these scenes, too, like home movies with non-actors, which gives them a guileless, irresistibly sweetness.

Guy and Girl’s mutual loneliness and their love for music draw them together. She drags him to a music store where the generous proprietor lets her play the piano when the shop isn’t crowded. Though they barely know each other, and though her English is accented with her Eastern European origins, they speak the common music of language. He talks her through his song’s chord changes and transitions, which she absorbs without a question, and they play a lovely duet, their voices blending beautifully. Their mutual respect and understanding, as well as the pure joy of making music together, shade their expressions.

Early on in the film, Guy makes a casual sexual pass, inviting Girl to spend the night with him. She’s offended for reasons that become clear only when she reveals that she’s married to a man who stayed behind in the Czech Republic. She feels emotionally as well as geographically far from her husband, and intimates that he doesn’t understand her music or her needs.

Guy, too, struggles with his feelings for his absent lover; she’s moved to London after betraying him with another man. All of his songs seem written for her, and all of Girl’s songs seem addressed to her husband. Yet in their partners’ absence, the couple’s music seems more and more to speak to one another, as their intimacy and affection grows.

The two settle into a warm friendship that begins to more gradually take on erotic overtones. He takes her to a dinner party where a motley assembly of people eat and drink and finally set aside their plates and pull out instruments, crowding around the makeshift kitchen table to strum guitars, bow violins, pick at basses, and sing to music that expresses something communal and personal yet public and urgent for them all.

Although Guy is older, Girl is savvier, and her street smarts and precociousness clearly helps her and her family survive a working class existence with few creature comforts. When Guy decides to make a demo CD, Girl negotiates the studio rental at a bargain price. To secure financing, they visit a loan officer, watching carefully as he listens to their rehearsal tape. The interview ends when the officer borrows Guy’s ubiquitous guitar and serenades them with his own music. In this utopian world, everyone is sympathetic to artists; everyone, in fact, is an artist, committed to supporting one another and their dreams.

Guy invites three fellow street musicians to join him and the girl as his band for his studio session, communicating with them in the same musician-speak that’s the film’s lingua franca. The five hole up in the rented recording studio with a reluctant hired engineer, whose initial sneer turns to more than grudging respect once he hears them play. A montage demonstrates that once again, music connects them all in a proto-familial group of support and affection.

The girl’s mother and daughter join them, bringing food and companionship during a break; they play together easily, with dedication and commitment, each one a part of the transformative whole. At the end of the rigorous few days, they pile into a car to hear how the CD sounds outside the studio, and wind up playing Frisbee at the beach, chasing each other as the music they’ve just created together provides the warm background.

Once is filled with subsidiary characters, a large cast of non-actors who comfortably, unobtrusively, convincingly fill out the frame. The guy’s father is a singular, supportive presence; the two of them work together in the vacuum repair shop like surgeons in an operating room, the son handing the father his tools with the long familiarity of an assistant who can predict the older man’s needs.

Each of the film’s characters is named for who or what they are and nothing else. In addition to “Guy” and “Girl,” the others are “guys on the stoop,” “guys watching television,” “mother,” “daughter,” and “old woman on the bus,” ordinary people graced here by sharing the music being made around them.

Once is a generous, humanist film, in which art lets people forge a connection, however brief and tenuous, that enhances their lives. Music makes them generous and kind with one another and lets them feel their lives in all their poignant pain and happiness. Singing and playing together becomes a model for a collective, utopian “as if.”

The film dignifies the ordinary without romanticizing it. What could be sentimental and sappy culminates instead as moving and persuasive, a slice of lives that remind us of how good our own can be when we listen for the lyrics and let ourselves be transported by the melody.

Happily singing to the soundtrack,
The Feminist Spectator

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