Rated R for the f-word. Really, this might be one of the most tame R rated movies I have ever seen. It almost goes out of its way to include the f-word. In terms of other questionable content, the protagonists play around the notion with sleeping with each other, but that is really kind of pathetic and small compared to what constitutes an R-rated movie. It's really just the occasional language. You could watch a solid chunk of this movie and completely forget that the movie is R-rated.
DIRECTOR: John Carney
Nothing like running into a movie that I've been recommending a ton, but that I haven't watched since it came out in 2007. Yeah, I've been sitting on this one for far too long, getting leverage out of something that I just remembered loosely. I remembered it so poorly that I thought the movie had a drastically different ending than it had. In fact, I'm so far off with the actual ending and my imagined ending that I'm having the two narratives duke it out in the back of my head while I type furiously. What if I write about the wrong ending? That can't be good for a film blog.
Once again, I'm chipping away at the Fox Searchlight box I got a while ago. But this is one of those movies that has somehow, despite being a sleepy little independent film, kept poking its way into the cultural zeitgeist. When "Falling Slowly" kept on appearing on The Last Man on Earth, I knew that I should probably watch the movie again. It is one of those things that really both touches the romantic in me and the cynic in me simultaneously. It's such a bleak piece about romance and humanity when art becomes the primary motivator in life. Part of me has no real relation to the characters in the film. While I may teach English and in the sense that I try to write this blog every day, that's at least a peek into the world of the creative. But these are people who have abandoned comfort and success so that they can pursue their dreams. Well, at least that's true about Glen Hansard's Guy (who, like Girl, is an unnamed character). Girl, portrayed by Marketa Irglova (I refuse to do the accent marks because I haven't learned the shortcuts for them) is actually someone who has been forced into poverty.
But this is a story about the love of the functioning poor. Both Guy and Girl live these lives where every dollar matters. The movie starts for Guy with his busking guitar case stolen by someone he kinda / sorta knows. He hustles down the street and he's just ready for it. For Guy, the world of busking is commonplace. It has been part of his life ever since his wife? / girlfriend? cheated on him and now he just lives the life of a poor singer. Sure, he's got the Hoover shop as background, but everything about Guy screams that he doesn't live comfortably. It's interesting to see, and I hate to sound like Richard Attenbourgh with this, that someone like Guy kind of lives like a child. He seems unable to leave a state of arrested development with his father. They have become this symbiotic relationship. Guy needs to help his dad with the Hoover shop. Guy's dad knows that Guy has been so broken that he is unable to exit his cycle of sadness and poverty. Guy's room seems a lot like my room in high school. It's a bunch of tiny walls (this is before I moved into the basement and increased my real estate ten-fold) with things tacked to the walls.
But Guy seems rich compared to Girl. Guy starts the film as the most down-on-his-luck character imaginable. He's a bit of a grump because things can't get any worse for him. But Girl, despite her very trying background, seems to be the outgoing one. She is the one raising both a daughter and a mother with a very limited income. But she sees this Scrooge on the corner and engages with him. She is the immigrant who sees this place of sadness and hardship as a form of paradise. This isn't to say that she isn't happy. But she seems to engage with Dublin with the sensation that things are looking up. She has removed herself from her toxic husband. She has surrounded herself with people who deal with the same second-class-citizen struggles that she does. It's what makes her so charming.
I'm the kind of audience member who shuts down when there's a marriage involved in a story. This is even before I got married. I just can't get comfortable with the idea that I'm supposed to be rooting for characters when they are committing adultery. So why am I cool with Girl cheating on her husband? Part of me thinks is that he is faceless until the end. We hear these stories of her trying to make it work. It really feels like they are divorced for the length of the film because he's never there and never wanted to be there. But the couple are quite sympathetic. Because Guy is so broken over his failed relationship and because Girl made his life gain meaning, they seem to be an even more healthy symbiotic relationship. I mean, there's symbolism in the idea that their instruments compliment each other. They find practical value in each others talents, but there's something so intimate about the notion that they perform and sing together that makes the whole thing gain just that extra bit of meaning.
I often exercise while I'm watching these movies. (If you are wondering how I can possibly maintain a near daily film blog, it is because I watch these movies during my daily exercise routine. I'm not ripped because of a combination of genetics and a recently abandoned diet that was causing my cholesterol to spike.) While I'm running, I often think what direction I want to approach while writing the blog. With Once, I knew that I wanted to talk about how this movie almost isn't really a movie, but simply an extended music video. I've been talking about the characters and the themes pretty hard so far, but I completely forgot how this movie doesn't really feel cinematic in any way, shape, or form. As much as I say that I haven't seen this movie in ages, I knew a lot of it because I had the soundtrack. I've always been honest about lack of pop culture savviness when it comes to music, but I dug the Once soundtrack. For all my ping-ponging around the point, Once is kind of just a visual form of the soundtrack.
Because as much as we care about the characters in the movie, and as much as I care about the themes of poverty and love, it really does put the music in a foundational spot throughout the film. From what I understand, Once has been adapted to be a stage musical. I always had an odd problem lumping something like Once into the category of musical because lots of movies that aren't musicals have people singing. It's always that questionable diagesis that has to happen for me to fully understand that something is or isn't a musical. (For example, I refuse to accept The Hobbit movies as musicals despite the abundance of singing in those films.) But the way that this movie is shot, there's very little story happening. But there's the scene where Girl is "testing out lyrics" on the Walkman batteries to "If You Want Me". Think about how long that shot is. It's impressive. But really, if a plot is being advanced, we can get that from one stanza. Instead, we get repetition, multiple verses, everything. The entire song is there. What really happens is that we get a very low-key version of a musical or a music video.
I can't believe that I thought that they ended up together. The movie is so aggressively about not putting the two of them together. There really is no happy ending that is possible in the movie. It's so bizarre. It's like the movie is kind of talking about the messiness of real love when the world isn't comfortable. Because these two people are poor and with responsibilities, it refuses to have that cinematic Hollywood ending. The whole movie, we keep hearing about bad of an idea Guy's ex is. But Guy's ex is in London, as is a chance for artistic success. From an audience perspective, at least I can speak for myself, we want Girl to join Guy in London. But she says something real: "What about my mother?" Guy, from his perspective, was ready to take an emotional leap into adulthood. He was going to jump right into fatherhood, taking care of Girl's daughter. But the choice to ask Girl to come to London, in this moment, is discovered to be a greedy move instead of an altruistic one. When he realizes that he's kind of backsliding into his arrested development by having to simply replace his father with a mother-in-law, he can't make that decision.
So the delivery of the piano, in this moment, becomes this bittersweet moment. The two of them have improved each others' lives, which is touching. But this relationship, despite both of their feelings, is not meant to be romantic. It's this character shift in a fairly short movie that really sells that. The events of the film really only take place over a few days. But Girl goes from being mortified that he sees her in a sexual way to being open to hanky panky. (Her words, not mine.) She tells him that she loves him, admittedly in Czech, and the real heartbreak is the idea of a relationship unfulfilled.
And yet, I had the memory of this being a happy ending. I suppose I like sad endings. This is a nice balanced ending because the finale isn't horrendously tragic. The movie has an understanding on how this encounter was an important snapshot in two much larger lives. Girl ends up back with her husband with an odd ray of hope. It never gives us too much indication what direction their romance will take, but there's the idea that he's at least there to try. It's sad and joyful at the same time. It finds value in things other than romantic love and that's kind of touching.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.