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Saturday, July 19, 2014

21st Century Essentials: Once (2007)

All eras have works of art that are fundamental to our understanding of not only the craft itself, but the culture from which it was created. The 21st century is still nascent, but it isn't too early to start creating a canon that demonstrates the heights to which film as an artform has reached since the year 2000. These are the essential films:

Director: John Carney
Starring: Glen Hansard, Marketa Irglova
Country: Ireland

Guy meets Girl. Girl asks Guy to fix her vacuum cleaner. Guy and Girl play a song together. Love ensues. John Carney’s Once is a love story stripped down to its bare essentials, a naturalistic drama that plays out over a spare 86 minutes but resonates deeply. Headlined by musicians Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, this musical about seizing the day and taking a chance remains as effortlessly charming and delightful as it was when it first burst into theaters and started capturing hearts left, right, and center to become one of the most acclaimed films of 2007. Once is a wonderful and very special film, the kind that can be imitated but can’t be duplicated because it’s the result that rare instance in which every element of a film has come together in perfect harmony.

Once opens with “Guy” (Hansard), busking on the streets of Dublin, not trying to eke out a living, per say (he has a job working for his father’s vacuum repair shop), but engaging in the thing that means the most to him: making and performing music. One night “Girl” (Irglova) drops some change into his guitar case and they strike up a conversation which results in another meeting the following day, when Girl seeks him out so that he can have a look at her busted vacuum cleaner. After some cautious back and forth, she reveals that she plays piano and then two visit a music store and play one of Guy’s songs together, falling in love in the process. There are complications, however, primarily in the form of her husband and the father of her child, still residing in the Czech Republic. Having gained a shot of confidence thanks in no small part to Girl’s support, which includes helping him get a loan so that he can rent studio space and record an album, Guy is determined to go to London and finally take his shot at making his career as a musician happen – and he wants Girl to come with him.

Carney, who wrote the screenplay in addition to directing, takes a realist approach to the story, filming with handheld cameras and using natural lighting. Though neither Hansard nor Irglova is an actor by trade, they’re relaxed enough in front of the camera that the dialogue has an unforced, off-the-cuff feel that helps to deepen the realism, and the two deliver performances that are solid enough that they could stand up even if you removed the music from the film. The central performances are like yin and yang, with Irglova’s one of a happy surface which hides deeper troubles, and Hansard’s one in which the anguish and loneliness of his character plays all over his face while hope and happiness are slower to bubble to the surface. While Irglova brings some little touches of comedy to the film with the way that she casually tosses curse words into conversation as if those were the first English words she learned, and is called upon to diffuse the romantic tensions between the characters whenever it threatens to cross the point of no return, walking things back to a more platonic place, Hansard is called upon to push things forward and take things to a more obviously emotional place. There’s one scene, in particular, in which Guy asks Girl to spend the night with him and Hansard allows Guy to be so nakedly vulnerable and needy that it’s difficult to watch. While the music goes a long way towards developing the emotional core of the film, the performances of Hansard and Irglova, and the way that they complement each other, brings something essential to it as well.

But the music, obviously, is a major reason for the film’s success. When Hansard and Irglova are playing together, there’s an unmanufactured magic to it, a special glow that seems to come over those scenes. By all rights, the performance of “Falling Slowly” in the film should no longer have such a great impact. After all, it was the film’s signature song, won the Oscar for Best Original Song, and should probably feel a bit played out by now. Yet, when you watch that scene, it has such a rawness of passion, both in terms of the characters’ mutual passion for music and in terms of their quickly developing feelings for each other which are best expressed through music, that it remains a singular experience. Though it tells a simple, straightforward story, Once is the sort of film that attains the level of the sublime and does something that not all films can do: it holds up.

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