Once: A blue-collar melody

Last Updated: Wed, Jul 10, 2019 10:01 hrs

John Carney's 2007 film, set in modern day Dublin, is an atypical musical concerned more with characters than with spectacle

As Once concludes, one realises that the film's protagonists are left unnamed throughout. This though is a cursory detail, for its simplicity of plot does not require such fineries. This is a straightforward story about a guy who meets a girl, of how they make music together and what happens after. Glen Hansard, the front man for the Irish folk band The Frames, plays the unnamed ‘Guy’, a busker who performs on the streets of Dublin. Drawn in by his singing, a young Czech flower seller, the nameless Girl played by Marketa Irglov, approaches him.

“How come you don't play during daytime?” wonders the Girl. “During the daytime people would want to hear songs that they know, just songs that they recognize,” he laments. The Girl has her own worries, an estranged husband and a child, and a lost career as a concert pianist.

A well-disposed proprietor allows the Girl to play the pianos at his music store, and the duo bonds over music. The Guy and the Girl compose a song together; in a simply filmed scene made of unhurried takes where the frame moves in tandem with the song’s varying rhythms.

Through their conversations the two find each other similar in interests but yet worlds apart. The Guy is still lamenting over a lost love and the Girl has more pressing concerns about her child and her mother. Nonetheless, the Girl decides to help the Guy put together a demo disc to take to London in hope of landing a music contract. During this time, the Guy and the Girl work through their past loves, and reveal their feelings for one another, through their songs.

In the hands of a kitschy director this might be the makings of a great cinematic saccharine. And yet Carney’s direction matched with the earnest music by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova elevates this into a surprisingly delicate experience.

A particular scene of note is when the Guy and the Girl stand over an expansive seashore view where the Girl says a line in her native Czech. This single line in the movie is left without any subtitle. If it were a confession of love, the language does not matter for this is movie about musicians who hold a different vocabulary.

The music is the heart and soul of this story. You can feel the electricity. The songs – spectral strains of torment tinted with a hope – work in perfect concert with the film’s Dublin setting. The music is not an afterthought here; it allows emotions the couple is suppressing to become spoken without being said.

Once is a melancholic beautiful film, at once a musical more concerned with music than elaborate sets and costumes, and a romance that is more concerned with love in the real world than some Platonic ideal. Carney’s chosen aesthetic of the film is unlike any standard musical; handheld and full of digital noise. This looseness of visuals is a strength though, granting the movie the authenticity of a documentary. The film has an unrehearsed quality, an impromptu feeling. That it was shot in 17 days on locations with a negligible budget, only adds to its unalloyed spontaneity.

Since both players were not professional actors (aside from Hansard’s small role in The Commitments; Irglová was just 17 at the time of filming), this vérité style look adds to the verisimilitude of the scenes. Since the camera treats them as people and not performers, you do too.

The viewer is bound to hark back to the music much after summing up the movie. This is a modern day ‘Brief Encounter’ about two people who meet each other and share a connection more intimate than most people can manage.

Much like the personal songs the Guy sings at night, Once doesn’t play to the crowds; it revels in being its own venture. Watching , Once, one might realise that good cinema is not necessarily the beholden to massive budgets or name stars. Like it’s rather vague title, Once both is and is not a musical. It is simultaneously fragile and gritty, wistful and wholesome.

Once is a film that, not unlike a favourite song, one would play for a friend than failingly describe its notes.

This review is part of a series titled 'Cinematheque' centered around canvassing lesser-known films.

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