Once is the kind of movie that ruins it for other movies. Once isn’t just a nearly perfect little film, it’s effortlessly so, and you walk out wondering why more movies can’t just be this good.
Glen Hansard, who sings for the Irish band The Frames in real life, is The Guy, an Irish busker on the streets of Dublin. The luminously beautiful Marketa Irglova is The Girl, a Czech immigrant who sells flowers and plays the piano at a music shop on her break. Neither Hansard or Irglova is a real actor, but combined with director John Carney’s minimalist DV camerawork, they instill the film with a powerful sense of truth. The press materials for Once are vague on the relationship between the two in real life, beyond talking about their musical collaborations, but after watching this movie I can believe they’re soul mates – the love is right there on the screen.
Much of that love comes from the beautiful music the two make together. Once is, believe it or not, a lot like Hustle & Flow – not in actual plot or characters, but in the way it uses music as the prism through which all other narrative elements pass. Once is a modern musical, which means no one just breaks out into song (although there is one tracking gorgeous tracking shot where Irglova is singing along with music on her headphones as she walks down the street that is tantalizingly close), but rather that all the music comes from these two playing and writing together. Like Hustle & Flow, Once gives its protagonists a shot at a recording studio, and that process is compelling magic.
Irish readers have informed me that Hansard has become a hipster target in recent years, but I’m happy to be blissfully unaware of anything about him besides his performance in this film. He’s got a charming and rumpled presence, and his style seems to be somewhere in the Van Morrison/Nick Drake side of things. He’s a guy worth rooting for. Irglova, meanwhile, has completely captured my heart. Where The Guy is a bit of a slacker and sort of goofy, she’s responsible and tough, and yet vulnerable enough that you want to protect her (even after she’s driven a remarkably hard bargain for a weekend in a recording studio). The whole film depends on these two, and they make every frame sing.
Carney’s script is as minimalist as his camerawork, and he wisely avoids big, dramatic, romantic moments. The romance is in the small things, in a bus ride or a duet at the piano. I evoked Billy Wilder’s statement that a love story isn’t about what brings the couple together but what keeps them apart in my Knocked Up review a couple of months ago, but it’s really appropriate here, as Carney keeps the two just apart enough to drive the audience nuts. Too often I’ll sit through film romances and not feel a thing, or even worse not care whether or not they end up together; Once keeps you on the edge of the seat waiting for that first kiss. Never gushy, never sentimental, never pandering to your cheapest emotions, Once earns every lump in your throat and every tear on your cheek.
A beautiful movie with wonderful music, Once is easily one of the best films of the year. This summer is packed with bloated special effects films that spend pallets of cash trying to recreate reality while in Once John Carney and his actors have done just that with almost no money at all. No matter how many pirate ships or undersea monsters Gore Verbinski crams onto the screen in Pirates 3, there’s no way his film will have a single moment that’s as lovely and affecting as all of Once. I’m sure that Once will get lost in this summer’s maelstrom, but I guarantee to you that this film will, in a few years, be regarded as a small classic. Discover Once now.