Once, written and directed by John Carney, is a deceptively simple movie—a narrative strung together by pop songs, but without the sheen (or arrogance) of most cinematic musicals. By day, a Dublin busker (Glen Hansard) sings Van Morrison on a street corner for spare change, which, on occasion, is swiped by old friends in far more desperate straits than he. At night, the singer switches to his own compositions, most written for the girlfriend who abandoned the guy (who has no name in the film or credits other than The Guy). A Czech girl (Markéta Irglová, billed only as The Girl) approaches The Guy and asks him about his songs. He brushes her off; she’s pretty but too young (Irglová was 17 when the movie was shot two years ago). She’s also persistent.
In time, it turns out this Girl selling flowers to strangers for loose coins is also a musician—a pianist and singer, every bit The Guy’s equal. And so theirs becomes a friendship and partnership—though not quite a relationship, because of The Guy’s ex and The Girl’s estranged husband. He teaches her his songs: He gives them heart, but she gives them soul. At last they marshal their forces and book time in a recording studio, where they cut a few tracks that will lead them . . . where? We have no idea at all by the end of 88 minutes that come and go far too fast. Ah, but that’s the thing about Once: You’ll probably want to see it twice.
Should you need to revisit the film right away, there is an album on which Hansard and Irglová have collaborated: The Swell Season, released in August of last year. In glib shorthand, Once serves as an extended video for that record, on which Hansard sings like Cat Stevens performing Damien Rice’s songs for a Coldplay crowd as James Blunt forlornly looks on wishing that were him at the mike. Hansard, best known for having played guitarist Outspan in Alan Parker’s The Commitments, writes perfectly heartbreaking pop songs that are lovely all on their own, chiefly the track “Falling Slowly” heard twice in Once. “I don’t know you,” Hansard sings, “but I want you.”
Yet the magic of the movie is how utterly wrenching it renders these songs, which thrive alongside the film’s simple, eloquent, dusky narrative. Hence, Once‘s burgeoning legend among those who saw it at this year’s Sundance Film Festival as one of the greatest musicals of the modern age—a movie in which people sing to each other, only without the genre’s distancing artifice. After all, The Guy and The Girl are musicians; pop songs are their language, how they communicate in ways both grand and miniature. They don’t break into song for no reason; they’re people who can only express themselves through thinly veiled metaphors and perfectly constructed melodies. The Guy and The Girl—not to mention Hansard and Irglová—have spent their whole lives constructing this soundtrack to sing what they can’t quite say.
When she asks him about his life—he lives with his pa, above their vacuum repair shop—he strums a few notes and sings a few words; they’re on the back of a bus, he with his guitar and she with her questions, and it’s the most absolutely normal thing in the world. But their first duet is something transcendent: a performance of that song, “Falling Slowly,” so special that the album doesn’t do it justice. They’re in a music store, where The Girl goes during lunch hours to play the piano she cannot afford. She plays him a few notes of her own song, and she asks him to play something of his. He walks her through a few bars of a song—him strumming his strings, her stumbling along the keys. Then he begins to sing—”I don’t know you, but I want you”—and the song written for a distant love becomes immediately about this Girl who’s wandered into this Guy’s life. And they know it. They’re no longer strangers awkwardly getting to know each other, but they’re not lovers either—they can’t be, not just because of their distant significant others but because that’s how most relationships are.
Credit to Carney, a former member of The Frames more than 15 years ago, for making such a sincere film and having the sense not to bring in hired acting guns to lip-synch someone else’s heartbreak. Cillian Murphy was at one point going to play The Guy, and that would have ruined it. Only Hansard knows the secrets that lie between the chords.