Movie Ramblings: "Once"

It's almost ridiculous how much the indie Irish film "Once" is made to appeal to people like Anne and me. It takes place in Ireland (where I studied one year, worked one summer, and proposed to Anne atop Europe's highest cliff). The main character is a guitar-playing busker who performs on Grafton Street (where I've done the same three or four times). The female protagonist (Marketa Irglova), like Anne, plays piano (though is rather shy about it). The movie is about love or music, depending on which one you believe is the conduit for the other. Oh, and the lead male, Glen Hansard, played the guitarist Outspan Foster in "The Commitments," one of the great underrated movies of all time, which we own.

Knowing most of this before we set foot in the Uptown Theater on Saturday night, I was ready for a letdown. In the film's first 10 minutes, I grew worried. In terms of production quality, "Once" is at least one rung below normal Uptown fare--akin, I suppose, to "The Brothers McMullen," but with even lower digital quality and audio difficulties exacerbated by the Irish and Czech accents.

But the film quickly redeemed itself. Once you accepted the lower-grade production (and to some extent, acting, since both characters are musicians first, actors second)--and the fact that it's structured more like a musical, with several full-length songs sung by the characters, it was truly a beautiful film. (Trailer below.)

Glen Hansard was interested in "Once" (written and directed by his former bandmate in The Frames, John Carney) because he was tired of every Irish film being about either The Troubles or the proverbial "man who won't sell his field." "Once" is modern. It confounds Irish stereotypes by not holding a single scene in a pub or a church. Only one character smokes. Dublin is a city of Eastern European and African immigrants (Ireland also has a growing Brazilian population, which apparently has greatly improved pub fare). Even shots of the Irish Sea are kept to a minimum, which only serves to make the scene in Howth, north of Dublin, even more powerful.

The movie also confounds virtually every convention of the Hollywood romance. I won't offer any spoilers. Suffice it to say that throughout the film, music is the medium of communication and intimacy. I realized only the next morning that the movie's seemingly missing love-making scene actually occurred when Hansard taught Irglova how to play one of his songs in a music store, and by the end they were soaring into harmonies on a gorgeous Frames song called "Falling Slowly." (There are many versions of this song on YouTube, but this one is worth the horrible camera work for Hansard's spoken intro.)

Given all this, I'm not sure if I can even be objective about "Once." All I know for sure is that despite its anti-romantic sets and structure, it managed to transport me back to all of the most romantic times in my life, reminding me that I've been away from Ireland, the guitar and this film's overall passion for far too long.


Yes, the production values were all over the map--some scenes underlit, sound variable, camerawork handheld--but that worked to create a sense of immediacy. Once I was okay with that, I had no problems.

However, I beg to differ on the Hollywood expectation. There is an amazing payoff to this film that the trailer only serves to set up as a contrary expectation.

(Spoiler Alert)

My quibble is there wasn't enough of a setup of the difficulty obtaining the recording session, and the ready cash for gift in the final shot. One more beat on both of these points would have "upped the stakes" for me, and still kept the payoff rich.

That said, there are scenes of wonderful honesty and emotion in this movie--I was particularly taken by her playing her song for Guy after the recording break. For Fook's sake that was powerful.
Bellamy Grant said…
Yes, I want that song. I suppose it will also help this movie's marketing that the two leads have an on-again-off-again relationship in real life.
Kevin Sawyer said…
I haven't seen this movie, but I have grown tired of the European charm movie that I can't understand. My Cliffs Notes for "The Full Monty" would read as follows:

Incomprehensible.... Incomprehensible... You reckon? Incomprehensible... (removes pants).
Bellamy Grant said…
Is this a problem of European charm or European accents? So for Star Wars, it would be:

Good guys. Bad guys. Boom.

For Titanic:

Sailing sailling... yadda yadda... sink.
Vegas Gopher said…
I'm just glad they didn't name Hansard's character, so I can still picture him walking through that dingy Dublin alley screaming, "I'm Outspan Fucking Foster and I'm not a tosser!"

BTW, I've read that he hates talking about The Commitments. I guess I understand. It would be like meeting Bill Bradley and saying, "Hey, you remember that game against the Celtics when you hit that half-court shot? That was awesome!"
Vegas Gopher said…
Also, you and Anne have far too much free time, considering all the movies you go to/rent. I'm just jealous. We don't have a great babysitter network out here. We do have a regular Wednesday night date night, but nine times out of ten we wind up going to Lowe's or the grocery store. And there's certainly nothing like the Uptown or Lagoon out here. When we do catch a movie, it's generally something with lotsa 'splosions or with a marketing tie-in to a fast-food restaurant.
Bellamy Grant said…
I hear Lowe's can be a sexy romantic time! Yes, we're completely spoiled with grandparents five miles away. But at least I paid my dues by saving their house from massive water damage two weekends ago... no small feat, considering I barely know a Phillips from a... what's the other kind of screwdriver called?
fab4fan said…
Flathead. (The screwdriver, not you.)

I have only two words for this movie (as uttered by Guy's dad toward the end): Fookin' brilliant. (Although I, too, did wonder about the "ready cash for gift in the final shot" -- but I'm not a screenwriter and don't care about these details when it involves a scene as cool as that.)

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