The Irish romance Once is one of those urban fairy tales you come out of not wanting to switch on your car radio, make small talk or do anything but shelter in its beguiling ambiance for as long as you can to avoid re-entering the real world. In real life, you’d hardly register the ginger-haired busker and the elfin Czech immigrant who meet by chance while working the streets of Dublin in this small, simple movie written and directed by John Carney, the former bass guitarist for the Dublin band the Frames. Once is not strictly a musical, though its melodies — 10 ballads of love, loss and longing, written and performed by Frames lead singer Glen Hansard and his collaborator, Markéta Irglová, who also play the leads — carry the movie’s love life better than reams of well-written screenplay could accomplish. The dialogue, what there is of it, is pretty deft too, but this refreshingly unpolished tale owes more to Krzysztof Zanussi’s A Year of the Quiet Sun, whose lovers speak different languages and so say very little, than it does to Richard Linklater’s deliriously gabby Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. In Once, the meeting of hearts and minds depends not on what is said, but on what is withheld and poured instead into songs ostensibly addressed to others.
Which means, thank God, that nobody has anybody at hello — or for that matter, at goodbye. Unless you count a goofy bit of business in which the pair leads an electric-blue vacuum cleaner through Dublin as if it were a compliant puppy, there’s nothing the least bit cute about Once, not even the fact that its protagonists are never named. Tracked by an enchantingly wobbly hand-held camera, the Guy and the Girl come to their brief encounter trailing incomplete love lives of their own. His girlfriend has left him; she has a husband on hold in the Czech Republic. For all his moony romanticism, as he sits strumming a sad guitar in the bedroom of the house he shares with a near-wordless but supportive father (Bill Hodnett), she’s the freer spirit who nudges him toward the risks he must take to get his music out into the world. But she also has the resourceful practicality of the chronically displaced, hawking roses and copies of the homeless newspaper The Big Issue without complaint to support her mother (Danuse Ktrestova) and baby daughter. So there’s the pull of opposites, and the attraction of the ethnic Other. But there’s no sex, though one of them badly wants it and makes a wrong move that all but derails the progress of love.
Like the memories we have — if we’re lucky — of formative interludes in which a love affair never fully jelled but expanded our vision of what we might do with our lives, Once feels handmade in the best sense, an impressionistic feast for the senses cobbled together from lovely grace notes and a warm palette of reds and yellows. Exhausted session players toss a Frisbee on an early-morning beach washed in silvery grays and blues. The Girl leaves her drab home in pajamas and bunny slippers to walk the streets of nighttime Dublin with a CD player clamped to her ear, singing along to her friend’s plaintive tunes. The Guy lolls on his bed, replaying fragmentary images of his lost love. The only symmetry in their lives is a thwarted need to be heard. She’s a pianist without a piano; he’s a musician without an audience. Neither has a dime to their names, but they find ways to make music together on borrowed premises — under the tolerant gaze of a clerk in a music store, on the street, and in a recording studio rented for one lousy weekend. It’s there that, as in the best concert movies, we see the sexy magic of a temporary community making music together, and it’s there that Guy and Girl ready themselves to exchange the gifts that will tip the balance of their lives. Isn’t it romantic?
ONCE | Written and directed by JOHN CARNEY | Produced by MARTINA NILAND | Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures | ArcLight
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Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova performing live at Sundance Festival