Great Moments in Cinema: Once
It’s March, which means it’s time for St. Patrick’s Day, the annual celebration of all things Irish. It also means that spring is in the air, and as Alfred Lord Tennyson (or was it Lord Alfred Hayes…I can never remember) taught us, that’s the time when a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love. So as a way of covering both topics, I thought this would be the perfect time to look at a scene from one of the great love stories of the modern age, director John Carney’s beautiful and melancholy masterpiece, Once (2006).
The first thing you should know that Once is not your standard “boy meets girl” story. Set in Ireland, the film opens on the Guy (Glen Hansard, front man for the band The Frames), a lonely Irish busker who spends his days working in his father’s shop repairing vacuums. His nights are spent writing tender, heartbreaking songs of love and loss that are heavily informed by a recent break up, which he then performs on the streets in front of crowds of disinterested strangers. One evening, he is approached by the Girl (Markéta Irglová), a young Czech immigrant who supplements her meager income by selling flowers on the street. She is smitten by the guy’s scruffy charm, and drawn to his powerful songs. They soon discover that they both share a deep love of music, and this helps them forge a friendship that quickly blossoms into love (of a sort). The only problem is that the guy is still hung up on his old flame, who is living the high life in London, and the girl is still involved with the father of her child, whom she left behind in the Czech Republic. Despite all that, they nonetheless long to make some beautiful music together; to that end, they put together a band, rent out a studio for the weekend, and record an album. The result is a collection of potent, emotional, and profoundly affecting songs that are filled with the deep and abiding love that the Guy and the Girl feel for one another. Ultimately, while things don’t work out quite the way either of them truly hoped, they nevertheless end up right where they want to be, and both of their lives are made richer simply for having met one another.
The movie is great from beginning to end, but as regular readers of this column know, we’re only interested in a single scene or sequence. The scene in question takes place early in the film, when the Guy and the Girl visit a music store together, so she can show him her favorite piano. They spend a little time talking and getting to know one another better, and after some gentle coaxing, she convinces him to play one of his songs. Despite his initial reluctance, the Guy agrees, but only if the Girl will accompany him. She says yes, so the guy whips out his sheet music and eagerly teachers her the song, a beautiful and tender number titled “Falling Slowly.” What follows is a beautiful, touching, and wholly honest performance of a tender love song that is practically guaranteed to tug on the heartstrings.
What makes the scene great is the sense of sincerity that underlies the whole thing. Hansard and Irglová, who would go on to serve as the heart and soul of the band The Swell Season, were an item during filming, and the love they felt for one another is evident throughout the scene. Their chemistry is palpable, and it shines through in every furtive glance, every shy laugh, and every gorgeous harmony. When combined with Carney’s subtle and unobtrusive hand held camera work, the whole scene is imbued with a very genuine quality, one that is sorely missing from nearly every other so-called romantic comedy, or similar generic love stories. Thanks to this one performance, we are able to believe that these two characters, who have only just met, truly love one another. Best of all, we believe this not because we are told that they do, or because the movie wants us to believe that they do, but because we actually feel it. It is not simply the joy these two characters take in performing that informs this feeling, but the joy that they feel in performing with each other. That is the key to this relationship, and were it not for the genuine emotions that Hansard and Irglová shared, it would not work nearly as well.
More than that, though, this sequence embodies many of the film’s themes. The movie is about love, but not just romantic love. It is also about the love of music, the love of creating art, and the love performing. There is joy in all of these things, and Once is a celebration of that joy. The film is also about making connections, and crawling out of the shadow of being alone. When we first meet them, both of these characters are experiencing a profound sense of loneliness. The Guy is still hurting after losing the love of his life, while the Girl is suffering from the sense of isolation that comes from being alone and adrift in a strange and foreign land. In a way, it’s the same type of loneliness, and it is what initially brings them together. The Guy fights his loneliness through his songwriting and busking, while the girl confronts hers by wandering the streets selling flowers to strangers (most of whom are couples, so in a way she’s fighting her loneliness by seeking to enhance the love of others). It is only because their loneliness compelled them to take to the streets that the Guy and the Girl met at all. But it is their love of music that helps them forge a deeper connection, and allows them to create something that serves as a representation of the love they feel for one another. And it all starts in that music store, with a spontaneous performance that serves as a seed that blossoms into something both of them were hoping for, but neither of them truly expected.
Once is a truly special film, and while the story of the Guy and the Girl is fictional, there is an element of truth in it. Hansard and Irglová became darling’s of the indie scene for a short time after the film was released, and their heartwarming story continued on stage as they toured with The Swell Season. Unfortunately, life imitated art, in this instance, as the two were unable to keep their real life love affair from falling apart. Anyone interested in learning more about that should check out the documentary The Swell Season (2011). But for those who like their love stories to have a happy ending, they should probably just stick to the “Falling Slowly” sequence in Once, for it is truly one of the most authentic depictions of love ever put to film.