14) Once (2007)
Written & Directed by John Carney
Starring: Glen Hansard & Marketa Irglova
Once is an extremely simple movie. I could describe everything that happens in it in one sentence: Late one night in the heart of Dublin, a busker has a chance meeting with a Czech migrant, and over the course of one week, they get to know each other through making music. Okay, so that’s a bit of a run-on sentence, but you get the point. John Carney has pared his film down to just the bare essentials, sparing specifics in hopes of tapping into something universal. And it works. It absolutely works.
Just how stripped down is it? The characters don’t even have names. The credits list Hansard as “Guy” and Irglova as “Girl”, and throughout the film they refer to each other as “herself” and “himself” (or “yourself” and “myself”). And yet, like Edward Norton in Fight Club, it’s not something you really notice until after the movie is over. I get so taken in by these characters that names are irrelevant. There is a very voyeuristic quality to the film, both in the performances and the way it was shot, that adds to the experience. At no point do you really feel like you’re watching a movie, but rather, peering in on two real people.
In a number of entries in this series, I’ve commented on the decade’s trends in film. May as well do that here too. The musical came back big in the 00’s. Starting with Moulin Rouge! in 2001, and carrying over into 2003’s Best Picture winner, Chicago, a number of stage musicals made their way to the screen throughout the decade. Big, bright, glitzy, loud musicals. Once is a musical of sorts. Characters very rarely spontaneously burst into song. Songs rise naturally out of the setting, either busking on the streets of Dublin, sitting in front of a piano, or laying down tracks in the recording studio. Once strips back the glitz and skips the spectacle, and it’s the best of the bunch for it.
By doing so, a lot of the film depends on the strength of Hansard’s songwriting. Luckily, he’s the frontman of The Frames, and his songs are fantastic. There’s a raw honesty in his writing and his voice that goes deep into the darkest recesses of my heart and squeezes the places I didn’t know still hurt. And I mean that in the best way possible. Here, watch this and see what I mean. Poor video quality be damned, if this doesn’t tingle your spine, there’s something wrong with you:
There is a moment in the film where, following a recording session, the producer says they need to put these songs through “the car test”. What is the car test, you ask? “We’ve been listening back on these big studio speakers, so it’s time we had a go on some shitty speakers.” I assure you, these songs pass the car test. The soundtrack has a permanent residence in my car, as sitting in traffic, there’s little I enjoy more than rolling up the windows and belting out these songs at the top of my lungs. That’s about the highest compliment I can pay a songwriter.
Once is a story about love, but it’s not a love story. I don’t mean to spoil anything, but Guy and Girl never actually get together. It’s a better movie for it — more realistic, and more relatable. It’s about two broken people who are revitalized by knowing each other, however briefly. Irglova is like a composite of girls I’ve known who’ve done the same for me. Girls that I never got involved with, but who made me let go of my baggage and believe in love again all the same. She even looks like a cross between them. It’s a performance that can only be described as overwhelmingly cute.
That’s the charm of the movie. It’s so…romantically uplifting. A short, simple and effective film with honest characters and excellent music. It’s a definite favourite.