Once is one of the defining romantic films of the new millennium, and the most touching elements are the chemistry and song writing skills of the two leads in the film. Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova had known each other for years, performing together as a folk duo prior to any involvement with this film. Hansard, as lead singer of The Frames, met Irglova back in 2001 in the Czech Republic when her father had organized a music festival, inviting The Frames to play there. Hansard, a veteran of the Irish music scene for years, began supporting Irglova and her piano career. Hansard and Irglova soon decided to join forces as a duo to write and record and play live as The Swell Season, releasing their self-titled debut album in 2006. On the album appears the seeds of Once, with the tracks Lies and Falling Slowly seeing their initial release. It would be on the backs of these and other songs, a real-life relationship unfolding, and the chemistry of hope and promise that would spur on this film that is touching, romantic and bittersweet and one of the best musicals of the modern era. It’s also a film that positions romance not necessarily defined by sex or declaration, but by inspiration, openness and friendship.
Irglova and Hansard were consulted by John Carney (former bassist for The Frames) for a film about street musicians in Dublin. Originally, Cillian Murphy was cast opposite Irglova, but pulled away from the project, unable to commit to singing Hansard’s songs. Hansard was then pulled in, creating an intimate opportunity for life, music, and film to overlap with astounding honesty and commitment. It’s about a Guy (Hansard) who’s Irish and a Girl who’s Czech (Irglova) who meet on the street when the Guy is playing songs on the sidewalk. They start off a tentative relationship, where she learns he repairs vacuums and she needs a vacuum fixed. The Girl and Guy begin to flirt and end up meeting again because of the vacuum, and then walk into her favorite music shop where she is allowed to play piano. He has his guitar and they both decide to play a song together that he has written. “Falling Slowly” unfolds before the camera as collaboration, mutual affection, and inspiration mesh in the lyrics and the eyes of the musicians. He is healing from a past relationship and she is living with her mother and daughter, while her husband is back home in the Czech Republic. This new relationship is a cautious but earnest dance of romantic yearning and companionship as they begin to play music together and share ideas. The Guy has several songs he wants to record and recruits The Girl and some other local musicians to rent out a studio for a day, where songs are recorded in one long session, creating a document of relationships, past and present. As the film ends, The Guy and The Girl part ways, he heading off to London to retrieve his old flame, and she, equipped with a new piano he buys her, is living again with her whole family, husband included. It is a delicately played finale, using hope and reflection as romantic climax.
There is no kissing or real romance on display whatsoever in this film, unless you count delicate eye contact, honesty, and friendship as romantic. Surely there are countless “romances” that never fully materialize for one reason or another in the fashion that most movies equate with the definition. It could be argued that some of the most touching and devastating romances in cinematic history, though, are defined by lovers not consummating the relationship or who don’t stay together at the end. Once is in this vein, but is even more restrained in its approach, almost to the point of emphasizing these are “just friends”. Yes, friends who are attracted to each other, but friends just the same. If the film achieves anything, it is all because of the utterly real chemistry of the two leads as they portray this friendship. Around the time of the making of the film, Irglova and Hansard became romantically linked and then on for a period of a few years. Thus, the film contains real, unforced, onscreen chemistry, like Bogie and Bacall or Hepburn and Tracy. But it is not filtered through professional acting and instead reflects a kind of ragamuffin, honesty. Due to their unfamiliarity with being filmed, Hansard and Irglova were often filmed from afar as it made them more comfortable not being so close to the camera. One can see examples of their lack of polished acting, yet it almost works to the advantage in this cinema verite style of filmmaking, where imperfections in acting are leveraged by the filmmaker for greater effect.
Maybe the best way to convey what works about this film, is from a segment of an interview that Irglova did with The Huffington Post back in 2011:
Huffington Post: Along with Glen Hansard, you received an Academy Award for Best Song for the movie Once. Marketa, your on screen chemistry was amazing. Though your music was beautiful and the plot was special, I honestly think what drew people into that movie the most was the beautiful depiction of your relationship.
Irglova: Oh, thank you. Once is a perfect example of synchronicity and serendipity in life that happens when you're open. There are so many parallels between the film and real life and the lives of John Carney--the director and the screenwriter--and Glen and mine. The script was written and my character was developed before John Carney even met me, and there were so many similarities in terms of my life and the life of this woman and how the two characters in the movie meet and how Glen and I met, so it was this beautiful thing of the lines blurring in terms of what is real and what is fiction. I think that's, in a way, the perfect way to it to be because sometimes art imitates life and other times, life imitates art. It really walks this full circle, in a way. Working with the director on the film was most inspiring in a way that it was very much open. He recognized the friendship between Glen and I, and that was a big reason why he cast us in the first place--because he saw us play together in Dublin, and whatever chemistry we had together onstage was the one he was looking for in his film. So, once he cast us, he kind of allowed us to express the friendship that we naturally had and allowed for that to be felt throughout the movie within the context of the characters that he had written. So, I absolutely agree that there's something very authentic and sincere about the love between the characters and the love that Glen and I have for one another.”
Through collaboration and honesty, both The Guy and The Girl end up better people through the relationship. It is a film that defines romantic epiphany not through sex, but through inspiration, with the lasting document of this inspiration being the music they created together. Though they don’t consummate this love, they “birth” music and achieve a different kind of family unit together.