Love at first sound 

Irish import makes sweet music

We fall in love with certain movies at different times, and in different ways. Maybe you’re not sure until the credits roll, and a collective impact washes over you. Or maybe there’s a single, indelible instant when you realize you’re watching a story you’ll hold dear. I knew right away when Once had me: When an unnamed Guy (Glen Hansard of Irish rock band The Frames) and an unnamed Girl (Marketa Irglová) sit together in a music store, their voices joining in a duet so lovely I knew I had discovered not just one of my favorite movies of the year, but also one of my favorite songs of the year—all in the span of a few minutes.

Once is a musical of sorts, only not in the way you probably tend to think of musicals. Guy is a Dublin street busker, a man who dreams of someday making music his livelihood instead of just the few coins he can scrape together when he’s not working at his dad’s vacuum cleaner repair shop. Girl is a classically trained pianist, an immigrant from the Czech Republic making a meager living selling flowers and magazines in the street. Their first encounter plays like a standard romantic comedy “meet-cute”: She’s impressed by his music when she hears him playing on the corner, and son of a gun if she doesn’t also have a vacuum cleaner that’s in need of repair. And also like a standard romantic comedy, there are inevitable complications. He still pines over an ex-lover who did him wrong and moved to London; she’s raising a young daughter on her own while also trying to support her mother.

Still, they strike up a tentative friendship, eventually finding a moment together in that aforementioned music shop to play one of Guy’s compositions. The song they share is “Falling Slowly,” a haunting love ballad with an insinuating verse and a soaring chorus. He strums on his old, battered guitar while she finds a harmonic counterpoint to his lead vocal. Writer/director John Carney—Hansard’s one-time Frames bandmate—keeps the scene tight on Hansard and Irglová, watching as they both get an inkling that their voices together become something more than either alone.

It’s a nearly perfect melding of music and filmmaking, and Once keeps finding dynamic ways to incorporate Hansard’s songs into the narrative. Guy works on a bittersweet tune called “Lies” as he watches home-video images of himself and his former love from happier times, a powerful and efficient entry point into how deeply he was hurt. In a later scene, Guy and Girl put together a recording session with an itinerant Thin Lizzy tribute band, their naïveté about how such a session works initially convincing the studio engineer that they must be losers. But as their performance of “When Your Mind’s Made Up” builds to a crescendo, we see the engineer’s subtle realization that he’s misjudged them—and the moment couldn’t possibly work if the song itself didn’t have such power.

What’s remarkable about Once is that aside from the force of its musical moments, it’s a surprisingly assured piece of filmmaking from a novice director and a couple of musicians moonlighting as actors. Carney shoots his protagonists’ first meeting by moving in tight on Guy as he tears into a song with his eyes closed, pulling back only gradually to show that he has an audience of one. Playing characters who dance awkwardly around what they might ultimately mean to each other, Hansard and Irglová turn in naturalistic and utterly winning performances, their every conversation invested with an unspoken sense of the growing connection between them.

The exact nature and function of that connection is yet another of Once’s singular charms, as it builds to a conclusion that seems beautifully inevitable only in retrospect. As “Falling Slowly” plays again over the closing credits, a new meaning unfolds to the chorus’ refrain of “take this sinking boat and point it home.” The earnest yearning of Hansard’s lyrics may not be for every taste, but then this isn’t really a story for those who need their recommended daily allowance of edge and irony. With a heartbreaking sincerity you don’t often see in movies anymore, Once becomes the kind of film you can love while falling slowly—or while falling hard in the space of a single song.
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