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‘Once’

All you need is music . . . almost

by Kaori Shoji

The characters in “Once” don’t even have names; it’s just the Guy (Glen Hansard) and the Girl (Marketa Irglova), and the story spans about 10 days in their lives one autumn in Dublin. “Once” was a sleeper hit at the Sundance Film Festival — and it’s like a small, shining halo of brightness that recalls all that’s wonderful about independent filmmaking.

Written and directed by Irish musician John Carney, former member of The Frames, and starring Frames frontman Glen Hansard, “Once” is an unabashedly honest, art-house musical sure to grab anyone who has ever strummed a guitar or wanted to write a song about someone they loved.

The good news is that it’s all about music and the intimacy that it brings, and the story stops there. The Guy and the Girl don’t exchange a single kiss before going their separate ways.

You can see why audiences would love such a story — most of the time that’s how it goes in real life. Soul mates and true loves may appear, but getting to be with them is a different story. To witness such unlikely events unfold, we turn to Hollywood. To get in touch with the precious bittersweet-ness of love that slips by, “Once” is the place to go.

Once
Rating
Director John Carney
Run Time 87 minutes
Language English

The story is set in present-day Dublin, now known as the den of the Celtic Tiger and the most expensive city in Europe. There was a time when stories coming out of Ireland were about war, religion and the IRA — when Dublin was the city of James Joyce and introspective poetry. There’s none of that in “Once.” In many ways the film redefines the image of Dublin and Irish cinema by being firmly grounded in the current reality of the city, yet it manages to remain stoic and draws on a sincere, yearning soulfulness. The characters express their emotions through music; if they’re not actually playing out a song, they’re talking about, listening to or thinking about one. Music, literally, is in the air, something utterly matter of course and effortlessly spontaneous.

In one glorious scene, the Guy and the Girl are sitting in the back of a bus and she quizzes him about a breakup with his ex-girlfriend (he had already told her that his ex had left him for someone else and moved to London). “Oh . . . well,” he fumbles and then suddenly strums on his guitar (which has a gaping hole) and bursts into song: “I’m a broken-hearted Hoover-fixer sucker guy!” The Girl laughs. An old lady turns around in her seat and smiles at both of them.

“Once” is full of moments like this, and because of these, you wish you were the Guy or the Girl or any number of street musicians depicted here, joined by a collective love for their craft and seemingly inhabiting a wondrous, protected place that has no need for words.

It’s never that easy, of course. When he’s not crooning songs on the street, the Guy must repair vacuum cleaners in his father’s shop to eke out a living, but at the end of the day, whatever else happens, he says, “I have my guitar.” (And before him, a million other musicians said it, too, including Jimi Hendrix.)

For the Girl, it’s a bit more difficult since she’s a pianist who has no piano. An immigrant from the Czech Republic with her mother and baby daughter in tow, the Girl sells flowers on the street and cleans houses for a living. The only time she can practice her art is during lunch hour, on a Steinway displayed in a music shop where she has charmed the owner into letting her play. She takes the Guy there soon after they meet, and within five minutes they’re making music together, excitedly trying out chords on a song he has written. “I don’t know you, but I want you” sings the Guy, and you can tell that she knows exactly what he’s talking about.

At one point the Guy attempts to make something other than music with her in his boyhood bedroom on the second floor of his father’s house. “Because I’m lonely and you’re gorgeous,” he says, and his desperation is palpable. She brusquely brushes him off and leaves, but the next day he seeks her out on the street and asks if she’d like to make a demo-tape together, as good friends. That proposal is totally acceptable, and after that she surprises him by helping him get a suit, arranging a loan at the bank and booking a studio for the weekend. The Girl’s pure spunk and sincerity of spirit make her an ideal companion — the Guy still wants her, but he suppresses that desire in order to nurture their friendship. It’s also that she, though much younger than he is (Marketa Irglova was 17 when the film was made), intimidates him with her maturity and weighty responsibilities. At one point he asks whether she would go to London with him, and she jokingly asks “Can I bring my mother?” To which he can only fall silent. When the demo tape is finished and there’s nothing more to work on, she makes an exit that is the epitome of wisdom and grace. And only their songs remain.