Once (John Carney, 2006)
In that scene where the guy (Glen Hansard) and the girl (Market Irglova) starts playing the piano and their voices and melodies merge, magic happens. It happens in the most uninteresting of places, a near-empty music store where unsold guitars adorn the walls and other musical instruments are lying about. It is at that exact moment that John Carney's Once becomes something endearingly recognizable, a film about the inevitable connection of two like souls that is told through music. It is also at that moment that Carney prepares us for the film's eventual heartache as he punctuates a budding relationship that is ripe for that perfect cinematic romance with cautionary baggage that burden the two would-be lovers. Both of them are nursing hearts that are wounded from past relationships that have not completely past.
“Take this sinking boat and point it home, we’ve still got time. Raise your hopeful voice. You had a choice. You’ve made it now. Falling slowly sing your melody, I’ll sing along,” they sing in duet. The song’s lyrics itself foretell the hopeful and dreamy tone the film will partake from then on. The film drifts along on as the two continue to make music from that point in time, from the rugged interiors of the music shop to the high-end 3,000 pounds-a-weekend recording studio with a bunch of other musicians they also plucked from the street, curving frequently to blissful escapades where both of them explore the possibility of romantic future together without ever daring to commit to it.
Once has been advertised as a modern-day musical. I'm quite uncertain what makes a musical modern-day, old-fashioned or antiquated. Once definitely does not have the deliciously lush visuals of the musicals of Hollywood's golden years where both leading man and lady upstage the already luscious backgrounds with their incandescent beauty, pitch perfect voices and bravura dancing skills. Its characters do not sing upon cue of the background melodies performed by an unseen orchestra, but instead sing when they have to mostly out of a natural tendency to express themselves through song. If by being a modern-day musical, it is meant that the film manages to maneuver itself out of the traditional constructs of a musical film without sacrificing the abundance of sung melodies and the general celebration of music as integral part of filmmaking, then Once fits the description.
Once partakes of an aesthetic style that most hip new directors utilize, where the camera is as free as the subjects it is capturing, often jittering and shaking while hurriedly breezing through the locales or patiently waiting on prolonged moments of attractive mundaneness. In fact, Carney consciously turns Dublin into a drab and cold city, where the dictates of commerce make it inherently difficult for individuals to connect in a human level. The guy covers familiar tunes during the day time since, as he explains, these are the songs that people would pay to listen to, thus delegating his own music to the emptiness of the night scene, presumably hoping that a soul similarly wandering the tamer and more accepting Dublin night would get attracted to the authentic emotions his heartfelt composition carries. It is this mixture of the intended visual plainness, the subtly hostile intimidations of a commerce-minded city, and the enunciated emotional undertones of the original compositions that make this musical so intimate, especially if compared to the more traditionally conceived musicals that equate its musicality with spectacle.
Slowly but surely, Dublin becomes a more hospitable place as the guy finds that perfect partner out of the numerous personalities that roam the city. It is as if from the moment the guy and the girl discovered their unique connection, their ability to meld their musical inclinations into a melody that overflows with irresistible sincerity, a candle was lit to bring warmth to the film, warmth that is both reassuring and safe to the audience. We get glimpses of Dublin that is far from the inhumanity of the cold sidewalks: like the humble abode of the girl with her very hospitable mother, adorable daughter, and neighbors; or the guy’s house where he shares a sizable portion of his day accompanying his father who is nursing the heartache of his wife’s recent death; or the grassy field that overlooks a calming body of water where the guy brought the girl using his father’s motorcycle and the girl throws a hint of requited love but mystifies it by draping it with her foreign language. Once has nothing else to do but indulge in these sweet little nothings, engage us further by carefully unraveling both the guy and the girl’s masqueraded previous failings at love, making us invest a little bit more on the duo’s hopefully eventual life together based on how perfect they are as a couple.
Once is precisely that simple film about these rare connections with people we fortuitously discover in our lives. It is for that reason why despite the film’s obviously independent and meagerly-budgeted roots, its lack of recognizable faces and names, its whimsically driven narrative that partakes of the formulaic plot of boy-meets-girl made immeasurably special by the sincere songs that are littered most generously throughout the running time, the film still won numerous audience awards in different film festivals around the globe and gained considerable respect from critics. In a cinematic age that has been sensationalizing humanity’s tragic disconnect with each other with films whose themes range from something as deplorable as war to something as ordinary as normal alienation, it is very rare for a film to just simply celebrate the beauty two individuals finding common ground and truly connecting. While in the end, the guy and the girl again fail at that stab at a lifelong romance as they part ways to pursue repairing their previous relationships, the guy leaves the girl a token, a piano, symbol of the instrument that drove the two together amid their own hardened perspectives, the uncaring crowd and the pessimistic atmosphere of this modern age: music.