So here’s the thing.
I went to the movies in the weekend, to finally see Once. I’d heard good things about it, had it down as a film to see, but when I heard the song Falling Slowly performed at the Oscars (and winning Best Song), I fell in love with the song and the film became an immediate must-see. (For those of you that haven’t heard of the film, and don’t remember the song from the Oscars, Markéta Irglová (the girl in the film) was the person Jon Stewart brought back on stage after they were played off.)
So I sit down in the cinema – it was playing on one of the small screens at the back of the Paramount – and was immediately disappointed to discover that we were watching what appeared to be a projected DVD. It wasn't exactly difficult to work out – as I sat down, they were still adjusting the projector settings, trying to get the picture to fill the 1.85:1 screen, and you could see them cycling through the Video, S-Video, and YPbPr settings. They couldn’t fix the problem, so we ended up watching a film that didn’t fill the screen, with black around three of the four edges. A real disappointment, since I did pay full price for the screening, and was getting a second-rate presentation.
But once the screening started, I pretty much forgot all this and was just entranced by the extraordinary film I was watching. The opening moment, where “the guy” (almost all the characters are unnamed) has his busking money stolen and chases the heroin addict thief down the streets was a laugh-out-loud opening that was not at all what I had expected for what I had assumed was a small love story. But it pretty much set the scene for a film that was determined to defy everything you expected.
The story: Musician guy living in Dublin meets flower-selling musician girl from the Czech Republic. A relationship slowly develops, they collaborate creatively, and things develop from there.
Here’s the thing that astonished me: I went to the film expecting a love story. A romance. And it is ... kind of. I think. But it is the single most understated romance I have ever seen. There is no great declaration of love, and the film even barely acknowledges it as a romance. (There are only three lines that I can think of that even suggest that the relationship may be more than a friendship – a rather unfortunate invitation at the end of the first “date”, a half-joking line about “hanky panky”, and one line presented in unsubtitled- and uninterpreted-Czech where I think she said something about her feelings for him, although there are many other things she may have said.) As Glen Hansard (the guy) has commented, the pair don’t even hold hands in the film. The fact, is, the love story is played out at such a heartbreakingly low level that the film could easily be interpreted as about a pure non-romantic friendship. Or even just a creative collaborative partnership, where each person is inspired to greater art through the other’s creative contribution.
And perhaps that’s the film’s strength. It’s not just about a love story. It’s about music, about the act of creating music, and about what music inspires in us. The characters don’t express themselves in dialogue, they express themselves through music. And the passion just fills every song in the film. Everything they need to say is expressed in the music, in the lyrics, in the very act of creating their art. There’s a brilliant moment early in the film where the guy shows the girl a song he’s just written, Falling Slowly. And it’s a moment we’ve all seen a million times before – the act of creating a new work of art, where the artist is so confident, seems to already know the song so well it’s as know he’s performed it a million times, so the song comes out perfect. Compare that to the scene here. It’s a song he’s already written, but only recently, so he doesn’t know it well. So he’s teaching it to her, but still looking at his notes to remember what words, what notes come next, while still nervously watching the girl to see what she thinks of the song. It’s so small, so awkward and uncertain. And she slowly picks up the (very simple, yet perfect) song and starts to join in, and it was so simple and wonderful and one of the most beautiful sequences I have seen in a long time.
I think the main comment I would make about the film is that I walked out of the film, straight into the nearest music store I could find, and bought the CD. No browsing around for a few week, trying to find the best price before forking out the cash. I could definitely have got the soundtrack for less (I could have saved $10 if I went through Amazon) but that wasn’t important. I just had to have the CD, right now. I wanted to listen to it, experience those emotions again. And the songs are just as wonderful when separated from the film.
I could talk on for page after page about the film, but I won’t. Suffice it to say that all the critics that proclaimed it one of the best films of the year ... weren’t all that wrong. It’s difficult to compare to some of the other great films we’ve had last year, the higher-profile films like No Country For Old Men or There Will Be Blood, because they are so wildly different. But I have definitely found a film that should have knocked Atonement off the Best Picture nominee list. It really is an astonishing film, and I can't wait to add this one to my collection.