May 18, 2007
It takes all of 10 seconds for John Carney's "Once" to announce itself as something special. A handsome young street musician in Dublin raises his voice in song, then raises it higher with heart-stopping fervor. When a mysteriously endearing young woman stops to interrogate the busker about his music -- she turns out to be a musician too -- the movie reveals itself as something magical. When they sing their first duet, it's a song of such transporting passion that you wonder where the drama can possibly go, since they're obviously made for each other and should instantly leave the screen to live the rest of their lives in private bliss. The lovers are played by Glen Hansard, the lead singer of the Irish rock group The Frames, and Marketa Irglova, a musician from the Czech Republic. (Amazingly, given her gifts as a singer, pianist and actress, Ms. Irglova was only 17 years old when the movie was shot.) Both performances give new meaning to the timeworn phrase "pitch-perfect," while both characters do nicely without names; they're listed in the credits only as the Guy and the Girl. Coy appellations of this sort often serve as warning labels for faux-simple fables that are fatuous or downright cloying, but that's hardly the case here. "Once" proves to be as smart and funny as it is sweet; it swirls with ambiguity and conflict beneath a simple surface. In all of 88 minutes, Mr. Carney's singular fable follows its guy and girl through a week of musical and emotional growth that could suffice for a lifetime. Music is intrinsic to the filmmaker's plan. The love story can be seen -- and felt and heard -- as a succession of chord changes, and the exquisite resolution amounts to a mutual musical offering. At a time when movie musicals have come to be synonymous with emotional and visual extravagance -- the super-mega-over-the-topness of "Chicago" or "Dreamgirls" -- Mr. Carney has dared to take everything down to its essence. What's left is two intensely likable people trying urgently, through very few words and a baker's dozen of eloquent songs, to come to terms with love they've lost and collaborate on the future. As Guys go, this one seems like the answer to a Girl's prayer. He sings like an angel -- a loud angel who's no stranger to anger. He summons sumptuous sounds from his battered guitar, and writes brilliant songs when he isn't fixing Hoover vacuums in his father's Dickensian shop. As Girls go, this one is irresistible from the first moment she opens her mouth: When was the last time you couldn't wait to find out what a movie character was all about? She's got spunk to spare, speaks with a slightly extra-terrestrial accent, sings with no accent at all, writes her own powerful songs and, miracle of miracles, has a Hoover that needs repair. (In one of the many memorable sequences in the film, which was shot by Tim Fleming, she trails her ailing vacuum cleaner, like a blue dog on a hose, as she and her Guy stroll through Dublin's streets.) In 1991, the year that Glen Hansard started The Frames, he also played Outspan, the baby-faced Dublin guitar player in "The Commitments," a feature that has gained a global following. (It's one of my favorite films ever.) What makes "The Commitments" so widely loved is, among other pleasures, its use of a working-class rock band's rise and fall as an armature for individual drama. "Once" may earn the same special status by doing something similar, albeit on a more intimate scale -- using pop-rock songs to shape its characters' ecstatic feelings. And very much like "The Commitments," this remarkable new Irish film grounds its Guy and Girl in the rock-solid specifics of musicianship. When she plays Mendelssohn on a piano in a music store, he listens with enchanted intensity. When they finally get to singing lyrics she has written to his melody, the sense of their intimacy transcends physicality. (It's worth noting that the story neither needs nor bothers with conventional sexual interludes.) My own feeling is that I should say something negative here; how else will anyone trust all this praise? In fact, the film presents inevitable language problems -- not bad language, of which there is more than a soupçon, but the authentic and sometimes impenetrable language of a guy from Ireland and a girl from Moravia who don't speak in mid-Atlantic tones. Another problem could be more substantial, or may have been confined to the projection at my screening, where the audio quality of some of the music tracks left a lot to be desired. Enough of that, though. The title of one of those tracks is "You Must Have Fallen From the Sky." That's the way I came to feel about "Once."