‘Once’ is low budget ( shot for 130,000 euros), stars two musicians as opposed to actors (Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova), was filmed in just 17 days, has semi-improvised dialogue and a plot you could sketch out on the back of a postage stamp: in other words, a recipe for a full blown disaster. I sat down to watch this with absolutely no expectations whatsoever and yet, by the end, I had been entranced by some of the best naturalistic performances I had ever seen and a film which truly got to grips with how music is created and what it means to people.
The plot centres around a Dublin busker (Hansard) whose playing is noticed by an immigrant Czech flowerseller (Irglova). In conversation, she pesters him about his songs and, on discovering he repairs vacuum cleaners in his father’s shop, returns the next day with her own vacuum cleaner which is broken. Their friendship develops when she reveals that she too harbours musical ambitions, saving up what little money she earns for a piano she has seen in a music shop. As the film continues, we learn more of the characters’ backstories at the same time as they kindle a musical and romantic partnership.
It is a film about dreams and hard realities. These are two characters who have been left behind, alienated by the roaring of Ireland’s Celtic Tiger, with dreams of escape through music. He wants to escape Dublin and try to gain a foothold in the London music scene whilst she wants to regain some stability in her new adopted homeland by acquiring the instrument she played at home in the Czech Republic. But these are characters also haunted by their pasts: he has an ex-girlfriend in London with whom he is still emotionally involved (in one scene he composes a song watching footage of the pair of them on his laptop) whilst she has a husband in the Czech Republic and lives with her mother and small daughter in an apartment block.
What makes this film one to be cherished is twofold: firstly, the emotional investment the audience places in the two central characters and, secondly, it is one of the few films which gives an indication of the way musicians intuitively feel their way to a realisation of their muse. During the making of the film, Hansard and Irglova began to fall in love with each other in real life just as their characters do in the film. It is rare to see the chemistry of love so rawly displayed on screen. You can virtually sense their falling in love during a key scene in the film when they visit the music shop where her piano is and he teaches her one of his songs (‘Falling Slowly’), first by detailing the chords she must use and then taking her through verse, chorus, bridge . He starts to play guitar and she tentatively finds the chords on the piano and begins to accompany him. Their burgeoning emotions are displayed in the shy glances they give each other as they play, each looking for reassurance and encouragement from the other. As she learns the song, she grows in confidence eventually accompanying his voice on the chorus. From being uncomfortable with each other when walking into the shop, they have seen a new avenue open up for the pair of them through the song they have just played together. For me, it is one of the most captivating moments ever captured on film. In writing this, I rewatched the sequence and yet again found myself engulfed in tears (yes, the arty assassin does have a heart!).
The other sequence of the film where goosebumps rise on the skin and hairs prickle at your neck is a purely musical one. By now the pair have recruited a band and got together enough money to record a demo. The engineer is disinterested thinking this is another crap band willing to pay him for a job he can do with his eyes closed (on the phone to a friend he says he’s “stuck here with this bunch of fucking oddballs.”) However, the sheer passion of the performance in the studio makes him pull out all the stops to ensure they get the best quality demo tape possible. And what a performance it is. On film, it is very difficult to get across the passion live performance can bring and yet here is one of those rare instances where it happens. In the performance of ‘When Your Mind’s Made Up’, the band cut loose and Hansard totally loses himself in the vocal performance (don’t be fooled by the gentle opening – watch it all the way through).
There are many other moments to treasure such as the way both music and particularly dialogue are improvised to enormous effect. At one point in the film, Hansard takes Irglova out of town on his father’s Triumph Thunderbird. It is at this point that he learns she has a husband in the Czech Republic and he asks her if she is still in love with the man she left behind. The dialogue is improvised and awkward as it would be in real life. To the question he has asked, she replies in Czech. We, the audience, have no idea what she has said and at the time of filming neither did Hansard but evidently the translation is, “It is you I love.” Rarely has there been such a public and genuine protestation of love on film, a declaration that merges fiction and real life and one made all the more poignant by the recipient of it not understanding what she said.
If you have a belief in the power of music being capable of effecting change, you need to see this film. If you believe in the power of love overcoming adversity, you need to see this film. And when you have seen the physical manifestation of this combination on film, you will clasp ‘Once’ to your bosom, as I have, and view it when you begin to doubt that music and love are the two most important things we have. ‘Once’ is a little film with a massive heart.