To kick off this week-long feature, we begin with none other than the 2007 Irish film, Once: a film about love and music, yet not a musical. In Once, the music takes on the role of a third central character, present all around the two leads.
Did the trailer make your insides melt a little bit?
Once stars folk rock duo The Swell Season, consisting of Irish musician Glen Hansard (Also of The Frames) and Czech singer/pianist Markéta Irglová, in their first and only significant film roles to date. (In Irglová's case, her only screen performance.) Hansard and Irglová play an unnamed duo of music lovers with nearly twenty years separating them. Hansard's "guy," a busker performing on the streets of Dublin. Irglová's "girl," a Czech immigrant flower seller. The guy hasn't picked an easy walk in life, street musicians almost never making enough to get by. On top of that, a heroin addict keeps trying to steal his money. After dealing with another of these aggravating encounters, he meets the girl, who's attracted by his music and ends up getting him to repair her vacuum cleaner at his day job. Fate strikes through a broken vacuum cleaner.
The next day, the girl reveals that she's a musician, too, and the two play a song together. A bond begins to develop between the two of them, leading to the big question of the film: Will they fall in love?
Once is not a Hollywood rom-com. There are no cheesy pratfalls - or any slapstick to speak of - and no too-clever-for-real-life lines or jokes. What makes the story so beautiful, like the works of brilliant Richard Linklater romantic genius covered last year, is the genuine humanity of these characters. The guy and the girl could be any budding potential couple in any city or town on any corner of the Earth. And these two particular young individuals happen to bond over the making of beautiful music.
The big question is seemingly resolved early in the film: the guy asks the girl to stay the night at his place, and she's insulted. In many films, this awkward shoot-down would serve as a turning point where the two would move on and never speak again and the film would follow the guy alone as he met someone else. (Maybe this next person will be the fated one who I would never realistically be with in the real world!) But no, Once persists in being honest, and the next day the guy apologizes and the two continue to nurture their bond through open-hearted conversation and continued musical collaboration.
As the film progresses, despite being smitten with the girl, the guy can't quite bring himself to get over his ex-girlfriend - the subject of many of his songs. The girl encourages him to move to London to pursue her again there, and with her support, he finally decides to do so. Before his departure, he learns many things about her personal life that he hadn't realized when courting her. Wanting something to bring with him to London to work on his career, the two record a high-quality demo at a professional music studio together.
The day of departure nears and complication after complication arises, as does, once again, the big question: Are they in love?
I won't spoil the answer or the excellent ending, but I will say this much: you'd be hard-pressed to find a single Hollywood romance movie ending that touches it.
Once is a film that, like Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, reminds that the most powerful love stories are the simplest and most true to life. The stories suffocated in Hollywood beneath show business glamor and artifice. Hollywood is in love with the concept of love, but doesn't understand a thing about it beneath the surface. Where Linklater's romances benefited from the incredible chemistry of its leads, who carried the films' naturalistic dialogue handily with their charming personalities, Once thrives on its two non-professional actor leads' obvious connection beyond their characters. Hansard and Irglová are dear friends who've been making music together for years, and it shows all throughout the film. You're witnessing something authentic which transcends the usual improbable stories about two people who don't belong together somehow finding love - the capturing of a human bond. And whether or not the bonds between men and women - or any other pairing of an individual with someone of the sex they're attracted to - lead to something deeply romantic, heartfelt, and transformative, every bond holds value. It doesn't matter if they last ten years, ten days, or ten seconds.
In our imperfect and often ugly existence, Once reflects beauty in the human experience in a way that few films succeed. Like the romance in Linklater's films, this is what we all long to experience in our lives, but so many fail to achieve, whether due to an inability to articulate that particular enriching need or the despondent downshift so many take in settling for less in life. For all of us who haven't yet found that connection in our lives, and for all of us who may never, Once is an opportunity to live something vital vicariously through the eyes of two very real people.