Sigh. This was one movie I was positive I was going to like: it's Irish, it's a "small film," it's musical, it's a sweet story of love. But the 86 minutes felt like 3 hours. The length of the scenes/shots is a big part of the tedium. They are uncut. They just go on forever with nothing much happening. Maybe we are supposed to feel some tension building, some relationships building, some sparks flying between Irish wannabe-rock-star-vacuum-repair-man (he has no name in the film: anyman) (Glen Hansard) and Czech a-little-bit-younger-single-mother (she has no name in the film: anywoman) Marketa Irglova, but I felt nothing.
From the first strains of (let's call him "Glen") Glen's monotonous, tortured folk rock, I wondered: was this movie made to try to expose/subject the world to this man's music? Do they know it's not good? By the end of the movie, I think the point was that it isn't good, or rather that it doesn't matter whether it's good or not, because the film's not really about music, but about dreams and what's important to us and how things like music can unite us on another level and how we can cross paths with strangers who can truly help us out when we're at our lowest. Glen's acting is better than his music, thankfully. Marketa plays a kind of simple, sad, minor, classical piano to accompany Glen. Her acting (she's a musician, not an actress) is direct but shy, plain but luminous. A different style, really than Glen's, and it doesn't match too well. But maybe that, too, is the point. These two aren't really meant for each other. He is melancholy and self-absorbed, a bit of a sad sack. She's determined and bright. There's a wonderful "theology of the body" moment, when Glen invites Marketa over. She answers: "No. It would only be hanky-panky. It would be nice, it would be interesting, but it would be meaningless."
Marketa's acting (or non-acting) holds our attention, Glen's doesn't. I just can't figure out if Glen's acting was supposed to be like his singing/playing. Was he nervously ad-libbing those umpteen "Brilliant!"(s) (like in the Guiness commercial) and "Cool!"(s)? Or was that his character's limited vocabulary? If it was all part of the act, then perhaps I get it: Glen and Marketa are just very, very average. By our American standards, they were also rather poor, and their poverty is a touching part of the film: Marketa's raiding her little girl's piggy bank to buy new batteries for her walkman, Marketa and Glen buying their clothes in the same secondhand shop, three men from Marketa's apartment building learning English on her TV.
A feeling of almost embarrassing vulnerability permeates the film. In one scene, Marketa walks down the street in the dark of night singing the lyrics she's composed to Glen's music: "If you want me...." Before we're able to be transported by this moment that we could wax so eloquent on, this moment we see in so many great films (I need to know I'm special, that I count, that I'm lovable...), a huge shadow of CAMERAMAN WITH DOLLY appears on the wall next to Marketa (and maybe even MICROPHONE BOOM) and stays with us for some time. But perhaps this is the height of postmodern art, and unintentionally further illustrates the embarassing vulnerability. I'm quite serious about that. Or maybe it was just "Irish." I can say that, I'm 75% Irish. Comedian Tim Conway said recently: "My parents were Irish--they shared an IQ."
Glen really, really, really wants to be a musician, and Marketa believes in him and takes him literally to the edge of his dream, and he repays her with a beautiful, perfect gift. We can relate to Glen's big, desperate dream, and the drollness of his ordinary life. But (dreamkiller alert!) don't we sometimes have to admit we don't have what it takes? That "the willing and the able" are actually two separate categories? Is Glen just going to fall on his face now that he has his demo? Did the engineer in the recording studio begin to like Glen's music after initially mocking it? Again, I just don't know if it matters. That's not what music is for. It doesn't matter if it's good or commercial or people laugh at it. The people making the music were making it for themselves, really, for their own good purposes. When Marketa plays "her song" on the piano in an off-limits room in the studio, it reminded me of what I feel when I play the piano, and why my father insisted I take piano for eight years. (My father was a fabulous pianist.) "During the Depression, when I had a business to run, a sick wife and four children to raise, I had the piano. I want you to have something for those times in your life." (I'm my Dad's second family. He had me when he was 62. Long story.)
A bit o' dry humor that I really appreciated was the Thin Lizzy tribute band. Good stuff. The best musical number, although truncated, was the pub songstress and musicians.
"Once" is a string of little moments, but not all of them are pearls. There is no letdown at the end, because there is no build up. It's all kind of recto tono.