Directed by John Carney. 2006.

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The Guy (Glen Hansard, lead singer of The Frames) is a street musician who lives with his father and sings on a mostly empty Grafton Street in Dublin after working his day job repairing vacuum cleaners. Outwardly cheerful, underneath he still pines for the girlfriend (Marcella Plunkett) who left him and moved to London and his plaintive songs speak about lost love and regret. His street performance attracts a street punk who makes off with his collection but also beckons a young Czech immigrant known only as The Girl (Marketa Irglova) who works as a flower seller and they slowly develop a friendship that deepens when he discovers that she is also an accomplished musician.  

John Carney’s Once has charm written all over it and has received many accolades from critics who have called it “simple and unpretentious”, “a perfect film” and “enchanting”. Unfortunately, it did not win me over completely. To be fair, part of the problem may have been the shrill sound system in the old theater in which I saw the film. However, in a film that is presumably about the struggles of young musicians, the songs are so perfectly realized and so professionally performed that the entire premise felt very contrived.  

Since he repairs Hoover vacuum cleaners, of course, she just happens to have one in need of repair which she drags down the street as an excuse to meet up again with the singer. When they take the bus to have it repaired, he sings to her that he is a “broken-hearted Hoover fixer sucker guy” and she learns a bit about his troubles in the past. In their budding relationship, she is the pursuer and he the pursued but when he asks her to stay the night, she backs off and we soon learn that she also has a back story. Recently separated from her husband who is in the Czech Republic, she lives with her mother and has a young daughter, clinging to the hope that her marriage can be revived.  

The songs, mainly written by Irglova and Hansard and taken from Hansard’s solo album “The Swell Season”, are the centerpiece of the film and they are sung with passion. One of the nicest scenes in the film takes place at Walton’s music store where they join together in a sweet song called Falling Slowly, realizing for the first time that they could make beautiful music together. Astonishingly, they qualify for a bank loan to finance a studio recording of their music because the Credit Manager is a would-be singer and because rejection is not part of the script. With their newfound cash, they rent an expensive studio for the weekend, pick up some additional musicians who just happen to be playing on the same street and throw together a professionally accomplished CD.  

It all goes very smoothly, no trial and error, ups and downs, or rejection slips. While the relationship does have its moments of charm, what could have been a story that had something new to say about the immigrant experience or the difficulties of the creative process ends up being little more than an extended music video (Carney calls it a “video album”), almost a promo for the sincere but banal soundtrack. And with her barely discernible Czech accent and his thick Irish brogue, much of the film left me wishing for English subtitles. As much as I was geared to love at first sight, I’m afraid that once is enough. 


Howard Schumann
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