Only sometime after the film ended did I come to the realization that we never learn the names of our two protagonists. And yet we build such a connection with them through music, through their bits of humanity, and from being a part of their lives for a short time. Because Once really does feel like a documentary. It feels like we’re meeting these people and peering into their lives for an hour an a half of sheer delight.
The guy (Glen Hansard) is an Irish street performer who can be found on the street corners, guitar case open, strumming away, hoping to get a buck or two. He’s good but nobody much seems to notice him. It’s as if people see you doing such a gig and think you must not be very important. I must admit I’m guilty of such a fallacy myself many a time. But there is one person who does come up to him. It’s a girl (Marketa Irglova), very straightforward and direct, and we learn she is Czech. What could two such people have in common? Music. Of course. The universal language even more so than English. Because she obviously has an accent and he does too, to my American ears, but their music transcends cultures.
It’s easy to forget Once technically functions as a modern-day musical because more often than not the genre seems like a dying breed. The songs in this film are beautifully melodic, with wonderfully earnest lyrics, and equally well-wrought instrumentation. But it fits into the narrative and nothing feels like a forced plug to get our respect. They’re laying it out there. Letting us into their homes and keeping all their feelings out in the open. Really they both have a humble existence, and each has had their own romantic pasts. He has memories of a love who now lives in London and despite her young age, the girl has a husband she left behind in her home country. It’s a surprise to him and the audience both.
Their ride on a motorcycle, for a brief instant, brought to mind the Vespa ride in Roman Holiday, although their excursion is a little less chaotic. There’s still an innate playfulness of people with wonderful chemistry and whether they are acting or not is anyone’s guess.
Everything goes back to the music though since that acts as the heart and soul of this story. When the pair of them are able to get a recording studio it looks like he might get his big chance. He invites her to sing because he really wants her to be a part of it. He rounds up a few more street musicians and they’re set. When they get to the recording studio and the tape starts rolling what follows is a performance bursting with passion and energy. You can feel the electricity. It feels as if we’re on the ground floor of something special, unwinding right before our eyes and yet we don’t know exactly what is going to happen. He’s about to head off to London to show off his sample and perhaps catch up with an old flame. She is preparing to make amends with her husband. But before leaving the guy drops a very big present on her doorstep to thank her for all she’s done for him.
Their tune “Falling Slowly” plays in refrain summing up this music-infused love story. The question is, is this an actual love story? I would answer in the affirmative. There is no sex in the contemporary sense, but this film does most certainly have love, whether or not it becomes physical. And it acknowledges the clear distinction between sex and love. These are two people who deeply care about each other and share a connection more intimate than most people can manage.