on Monday, April 4, 2011

What bitter sweetness this film stirs within the deepest bowels of any viewer! And how startling it is that such a small, miniscule piece of work that stirs such emotions, that big, bloated epics many times fail to stir? Production value is low but the almost documentary-style film-making only adds to the realism. The movie was shot mostly on video and with many extended, uncut long takes quite unlike the complex, operatic set-ups we've seen in the films of Martin Scorsese and more recently in Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men, but rather simple, static shots simple depicting our two characters interacting. Most of the film is just that – the two characters interacting – but such incredible depth of emotion derives from these interactions that it is truly inspirational. The filmmakers' and actors' capturing of total and utter realism is so convincing, that the film might as well be a documentary feature about two music lovers, following them from their chance encounter and throughout the course of a whirlwind, impulsive week of music-making. But what's truly remarkable is the emotional rainbow this documentation provides.

The key word in this film is simplicity. The plot is as simple as it gets – a chance meeting and a week of music making. Production value is almost non-existent and the cinematography is obviously simplistic and minimalist – except for one set-up involving a crane, which seemed a little out of place for my taste. The acting is extremely minimalist and realistic; we sort of get the feeling that our two stars are very much like the characters they play in real life, much like the same feelings evoked from Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise/Before Sunset, in which we know Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy donate so much of themselves into their characters.

Many people have labeled this film as a modern-day musical. Well, at first I resented this statement, as all of the music in the movie is performed on-screen within the context of the film. We don't see any breaking out into song-and-dance in this film; it is all the real, actual music these two people are making on-screen and in real time. But later on I thought about it a bit, and eventually reached a conclusion that may explain why people describe the movie so. In the classic movie musicals, the songs all deal with advancing and portraying the plot. In Once, though, there is a twist: Since there isn't actually much of a plot to talk about (although the characters DO have a well-rounded arc), the songs all deal with advancing and portraying the characters' emotional states. Listen to the broken-ness of Hansard's earlier songs written about his girlfriend in London. Or to the sad longing of the lyrics Irglová writes to Hansard's as-yet-unwritten melody that he leaves her on a CD player.

If the songs pack a big emotional punch, the rest of the movie packs a much more subtle emotional resonance. I think this may just be one of the saddest, truest and most beautiful cinematic depictions of platonic and entirely unrequited love. Many people have said that they left this film with feelings of elation and levity. I myself found the ending extremely melancholy. It's great that both of our characters at least try to get back together with there long lost loves, but it is sad that they don't get to see each-other for one last time. It is sad to think that even if the Guy goes back to London, he may not be able to mend the wounds with his girlfriend. It is sad to think that if the Girl couldn't get along with her husband the first time, chances are that the same troubles will arise the second time around. It is sad to think that if Hansard isn't himself a stadium-filling musician in real life, his character in the movie probably also won't be one. And it is great, of course, that the film ends where it does, in their parting, and doesn't linger on what happens after the Guy arrives in London and submits his demo tape, for example. The film begins and ends in the relationship between the two people and leaves it at that. But how sad it is that when the Guy asks the girl if she loves her husband, she replies in Czech so that he won't understand "no, I love you." And it is saddest to think that all the beautiful, happy and good things that happen in the film can happen only once in a lifetime. As the film's tagline says: How often do you find the right person? The answer lies in the film's title: Once. Many other questions can be asked: How often do you get a chance to go from being a Dublin busker to recording a professional demo tape? How often do you get a loan from a bank teller that just happens to have a passion for what you're trying to get a loan for? How often do you get to secretly rip off your father's beloved motorcycle for the day? The answer to all the questions: Once.

Shot on a shoestring budget, it's films like these that promise a very promising future indeed for independent foreign film. Devoid of the weights carried by Hollywood productions and the need to contradict those weights fulfilled by American independent film, the independent cinema of the world is free to draw inspiration from whatever source it requires, be it the human psyche, random surrealism or Irish folk music. Once in particular succeeds so admirably in all its fields not only because of the stunningly beautiful music it features, but also because of the simplicity and the anonymity of its characters and events. Can this happen to anyone? Yes. How many times can it happen? Once.


Rachit said...

once! :)

Rachit said...

oh btw, i think the crane shot was an amazingly poignant way of ending the movie.

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