Directed by John Carney. Glen Handard, Markéta Irglová. Fox Searchlight.
Decent Films Ratings
|?Teens & Up*
Content advisory: Frequent casual obscenity (sexual and nonsexual); romantic complications; a depiction of single parenthood.
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Once (DVD & Blu-ray)
From a National Catholic Register review
By Steven D. Greydanus
At once delicate and gritty, wistful and deeply satisfying, John Carney’s Once is a intimate little film that, like a favorite song, you would rather play for someone than try to describe. Not just because the experience loses in the telling, but also because the joy is in the discovery, the in-the-moment immediacy, the barely perceptible tension that leaves you holding your breath for the last twenty minutes, not wanting a single misstep to mar the story.
Not a story so much as an incident that becomes a turning point in two people’s lives, Once relates a brief but memorable encounter between a bearded Dublin street musician (Glen Handard of the Irish band the Frames) and a young, ponytailed Czech pianist (19-year-old singer-songwriter Markéta Irglová).
He plays guitar on street corners; she notices his playing and is intrigued. She observes that he plays edgy, heartfelt songs only at night; he explains that he makes his money during the day from passersby who only want to hear popular songs they know. He works in his father’s vacuum cleaner repair shop; she has, yes, a broken vacuum cleaner. She plays piano, but doesn’t own one; a shop owner lets her use the store piano during lunch hour. They play together and collaborate on a song.
She is lovely; he is lonely. Both are wounded souls, and their connection is emotional as well as creative, but she has a clear, untroubled sense of who she is, and won’t let things go too far. We never learn their names, and never need to know. It’s not inconceivable that they never learn one another’s names.
Those are the notes, or some of them. What I’ve left out is the music. To call Once a musical is both entirely accurate and thoroughly misleading. It would almost be better to call it the antidote to the musical, or at least the antithesis, whether you love musicals or hate them.
If Once is a musical, then every musician lives in a musical, every painter in an art gallery and every film critic in a film festival. The actual folk-rock they play may or may not be your thing; it doesn’t matter. It’s their thing, and they live and breathe it. Nothing has been staged for our benefit; there’s no offscreen conductor or choreographer in the wings, no show-stopping production number, no artifice or razzle-dazzle. The unrehearsed quality of their first-time collaboration, of his impromptu, semi-comic musical lament on the bus, feels like the real thing. (It just about is. The film was shot in 17 days on a negligible budget.)
Watching Once, one may wonder what the title refers to. Is their chance encounter a once-in-a-lifetime experience? What is or happens once? Is it a fleeting once, like a convergence of celestial bodies? Or is it a lingering once, like true love? As the film draws to a close, it finds the one right note to resolve its lingering tensions. It could easily have gone differently, but it doesn’t misstep — not even once.
Like the personal songs the street musician sings at night, Once doesn’t play to the crowds looking for disposable mainstream fare. It comes from the heart, and for those with an ear out for something new it lingers in the heart and mind.
I’m glad you appreciated Once. I think it’s a rare person who does appreciate it the way you did though. You hinted at this throughout your review; Once is not a typical romance, musical, or low-budget film. And someone can’t just be inclined toward those types of films to enjoy it.
I’ve talked with people about Once, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it is one of those movies that a lot of people just don’t or aren’t willing to understand or relate to. But, if you do let yourself be pulled in and affected, it’s immensely enjoyable and meaningful. I’m being too vague, but you know what I mean.
Sometimes I wonder what came first, your reviews or my taste in movies. :)
Ha! Perhaps it’s just a happy convergence. And yes, I certainly know what you mean — that’s why my review was vague, too. This is the kind of film that benefits least from the usual sort of review. Put another way, if all movies were like this, I at least would be out of a job (though other styles of criticism would continue). And I’d be perfectly happy. I’d get more sleep, too.
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I always look forward to reading your reviews, as they are consistently insightful and thought-provoking (not to mention that most of the time they’re right).
One thing which I’ve appreciated is that I’ve never seen you criticize, say, American movies just because they’re American, or praise indie movies just because they’ve escaped Hollywood, etc. It doesn’t make any sense to do so, I think, but nevertheless it is often done.
In that light, I’m wondering in what sense to take your final ’graph in your review of Once. The disjunct here seems too neat, and to reflect a stereotype (of there being a difference between “crowds” and more refined viewers) which does not need reinforcing — since in my opinion most people straddle both groups, depending on a host of factors including the time of day. And, of course, “Once” did play to crowds — it reached a vastly greater audience than anyone seems to have expected — but those crowds weren’t looking for disposable entertainment. Clarification, please?
Great question. Thanks.
First, as you infer, I’m certainly not against anything popular for being popular. My top 10 lists over the years have included the likes of The Incredibles, The Lord of the Rings and Spider-Man 2.
Even “disposable entertainment” isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as far as it goes. I’ve enjoyed and recommended films like Flushed Away, Inside Man and Seabiscuit, none of which I feel I must see again before I die. I’d consider them all “disposable entertainment” (Flushed Away almost by definition!), but that doesn’t mean something to look down one’s nose at. (To Jeff Overstreet’s rhetorical question in Through a Screen Darkly concerning whether he advocates film snobbery, I’m happy to give the same answer he does: “Great Naked Gun… no!”)
Having said that, when we talk about “playing to the crowds,” some perspective might be helpful. Once is currently closing in on $10M domestically and $17M globally. In relation to its negligible budget ($150K according to Box Office Mojo), that’s astoundingly good. Still, it’s been seen by fewer people than such certified flops as Lions for Lambs, The Invasion and Elizabeth: The Golden Age. What makes the latter films flops, of course, is that with their vastly higher budgets they were expected to play much more successfully to the crowds.
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I saw the trailer for the movie Once and it appeared that the girl was married and had a husband who was coming back. Can you tell me what happened?
No. Well, okay, I could. But I won’t.
To quote the tagline of a website I recently recommended, “remember that we only have one chance to see a movie for the first time.” That is truer, or more importantly true, of some movies than of others, and it’s true in spades of Once, which is why my review is so oblique.
If you really want to wreck Once for yourself, you can read a plot synopsis at Wikipedia. But why would you want to? Take the risk of watching the film, not knowing what happens. I don’t think you’ll be sorry.
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