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Once: 2007’s best film thus far?

They meet in Dublin, the boy and the girl do. In the streets where he plays his guitar to avoid fixing vacuum cleaners, where she sells flowers to feed her old mother and young child. He is a native to the British Isles who dreams of a record deal. She is a Czech immigrant who dreams of security. He is heartbroken for a lost love. She is heartbroken due to an unhappy relationship. He plays guitar. She plays piano. They both have hauntingly beautiful voices. And their story is the story of “Once”, a film directed by Irish, indie film-maker John Carney.

In the midst of a summer of disappointing “blockbusters” Carney’s film, made for just $200,000, is a pure and delightful breeze of poignancy: life, love, music, and failure are dealt with in such a revealing, honest, and quiet fashion that viewers will find, I think, that they cannot help be effected, they cannot help but emerge from their theater changed, and changed for the better.

The film, which is a folk musical of sorts, follows the two lead characters- played with admirable understatement by indie musicians Glen Hansard (lead singer of Irish band “The Frames”) and Marketa Irglova- who are credited only as “guy” and “girl,” through a week of their lives.

The story is simple, really. The two meet, they realize they both like music, particularly each others music, and they proceed to spend a week making music together; a week during which they discover how much the other is hurting, how human the other is, and how a kind word or a beautiful melody can begin to heal the soul. As they pursue the dream of a record, their lives and hopes are intertwined, and they are changed. Things don’t necessarily get easier, but they become more clear.

There are few plot twists and the script contains very little explosive dialogue. What complications that do arise center around their growing affection for one another. “Guy” is on the rebound from a painful breakup while “Girl” is in the midst of a difficult and unfulfilling relationship. In the end each are forced to make a choice- to follow their heart, their passions, or to do what is right, to do that which their current circumstances demand of them. The moments when they are forced to make quick decisions in this regard are particularly powerful. Often we are forced to make decisions, choices we will only be able to make once, which will inevitably change our lives: we can only hope we make the right ones. Thus, these moments in the film are incredibly meaningful; most viewers empathize profoundly which such circumstances.

However, for the thoughtful viewer, a difficulty arises. Hansard and Irglova have created such likable characters, people for whom it is easy to feel a wealth of emotion, that viewers will find themselves rooting for them to get together. But, like in Richard Linklater’s film “Before Sunset”, such an occurrence is possibly inappropriate. Therefore, viewers, like Hansard’s and Irglova’s characters, are forced to make moral choices.

But “Once” is less about the characters’ relationships with each other as much as it about their relationships with music and with time. It is a film about art and the creative process. And it is a film that reminds us, rather profoundly, that we are here for only a short time, that we have one chance at each moment, that each moment only occurs once.

In fact, it is the combination of the two themes which lent themselves to what is one of my favorite moments of film this year. Upon discovering that his new friend enjoys playing the piano, “Guy” insists that she play for him. They wind up in the piano store that she often frequents where she plays a beautiful piece by Mendelssohn. Impressed he sits down next to her and the two begin to play one of his songs. The camera pans slowly and lingers appropriately as they harmonize, creating a sound eerily reminiscent of Damien Rice and Lisa Hannigan. And when the final note echoes and fades away the silence is a reminder that never again will that beautiful moment occur, the beauty of their collaboration is a lovely thing to watch and one which is clear evidence of the power of the creative process.

John Carney’s direction, also perfectly understated, reminded me a lot of Linklater’s work in “Before Sunset” and much of Jim Jarmusch’s work. He trusts his actors and isn’t afraid to let the camera linger on them as they sing or talk or walk. Yet, he also uses the camera brilliantly to mirror the effect of the music. Carney knows how to use the camera in a sort of rhythmic emulation of what the viewer hears without allowing it to speak for itself too much.

Furthermore, while the ending is certainly not a cliff hanger like “Before Sunset”‘s, Carney avoids simply telling the viewer how to think or feel or hope about or for his characters. He doesn’t preach to make his point. He doesn’t insist we listen to him, instead letting the story, his actors, and their art speak, thereby letting the audience make decisions for themselves.

Thus, both the director and the actors personify the themes of their story: Form matches theme, as it ought to.

No film this year has captured my attention as thoroughly as “Once”. By it I was reminded of the power of art, the importance of remembering that this is the only life we live and that each moment is precious, and that the choices we make bear eternal ramifications. “Once” is proof that, in the midst of our summer long feast on multi-million dollar entertainment, two hundred thousand dollars can still make powerful films. Hopefully, “Once” will become the “Little Miss Sunshine” of 2007, the indie-film which captivated audiences around the world.

“Once” is a five star film.

For more on the film, and to listen to music from the film, go here.

To hear “The Frames” go here.

And to hear more of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova’s work together go here.

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4 thoughts on “Once: 2007’s best film thus far?

  1. Tyler Clair Smith says:

    Before Sunset is one of those movies I am surprised to find myself thinking of often. It’s one of those which would not be the first to spring to mind while compiling a “favorites” list– being crowded out by Royal Tenenbaum, Shirley Levine and Charles Foster Kane. And yet that movie has stayed with me so much through the last two years since I’ve seen it that despite its subtelty, it may indeed be one of my favorites.

    Maybe those are the truly great films: the ones that subvert your sub-conscious. The ones that could easily be forgotten but their impact will always remain. Were our lives changed substantially from Citizen Kane? Certainly lessons were learned. And what of Casablanca? Really it was a typical cut and slice job of the hollywood machine, though is somehow transcended such a dubious conception, in my mind rightly earning its place among the greatest screenplays ever written. And yet these films…what did they do for us? In an ultimate sense? We loathe to resemble Kane, though we see ourselves in him. We admire the rebellion, individuality and (contradicotry?) self-sacrifice of Bogie in Casablanca. But has their impact been as lingering as those quiet films such as Before Sunset?

    Such films are like the gospel, sneaking in while we are unawares until gravity loses hold and we are floating in the inky blackness of transcendence, groping for anything to hold on to. They confront us with the realities of life– the constant tension of desire and responsibility, passion and morality. Art can show us those beautiful moments when the two are not in tension, but align like the planets. But like the planet’s, such alignment is rare. Our next chance to see a significant alignment of the planets will be 2040. Our next chance of seeing the complexities and tensions of life give way may never come at all. Perhaps we will have to wait for the kingdom.

    Movies like these show us the pain of living in a cursed world. How can something be so beautiful? THe beauty of art? The beauty of that spark that unites between two people? And yet how can something be so cruel? How can that mysterious union cease?

    Thanks for this David. And thanks for listening to my ramblings. I can’t wait to see this movie.

  2. Tyler Clair Smith says:

    wow. numerous grammatical and spelling errors in last post. please ignore. yikes. i was off the cuff there. grace, please.

  3. Claire says:

    beautiful movie, but the soundtrack music really makes it what it is: romantic and deeply human. I hope I get to catch one of Hansard & Irglova’s live shows!

  4. I think this film, and especially the soundtrack, have stuck with me more than anything else from the last couple years.

    Thanks for the great review and the great site! I’m glad we crossed paths on Twitter!

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