Who'd Want It Anyhow
“It’s a great life we have, isn’t it?”, asks Glen Hansard at the start of The Swell Season. His professional and romantic partner, Markéta Irglová, is trimming his hair, the locks falling to the floor of their modest living quarters. But Irglová just can’t quite acquiesce, and her silence fills the room.
The Swell Season goes on to chronicle Glen and Markéta’s complicated relationship. Most viewers will remember them as the musical duo whose rise to stardom and real life romance began with their Oscar-winning collaboration in the 2006 film Once. With a hit movie, a bestselling soundtrack and studio album, as well as a major tour underway all within a matter of two years, the Swell Season truly had one swell season. But with the mounting pressure of expectations replacing the struggle for success, the cameras offer an intimate glance at a change in the seasons, as swell becomes sober.
It appears that Hansard and Irglová‘s timing was both serendipitously precise and ill fated. For Swell Season and Once fans, watching the film, the couple’s breakup is old news, and in many ways, they are all the more endearing now, for their continued commitment to each other as performers and friends. For those viewers more up to date on off-screen activities, Irglová’s recent marriage to recording engineer Tim Iseler makes the film’s storytelling even more bittersweet.
Hansard and Irglová’s collaboration on the album Strict Joy came about just as their relationship was ending, and markers of that dilemma quietly haunt the film. In one scene, when Glen records an early demo track of “The Rain,” he reflects on the seemingly prophetic effects of writing lyrics about breakups. “I know we’re not where I promised you we’d be by now / But maybe it’s a question of who’d want it anyhow,” he sings, struggling. He adds that he wrote these lyrics at a time when he never thought they would apply to him. The scene is informed by his grief, the only one in the film when he explicitly discusses the breakup.
The documentary depicts the fairytale couple’s seeming reality, or at least an experience quite unlike the charming fiction told in Once. The Swell Season is a less a concert film than a kind of epilogue to the first movie. But it doesn’t deliver the traumatic moments of relationship disintegration you might expect. Instead, it’s as though the important moments take place privately, behind closed doors and the cameras were left to pick up the next-day moodiness. It’s hard to find a point in the film apart from this early recording session of “The Rain” that conveys those raw feelings that Hansard and Irglová express so effectively through their songs.
The lyrics to “The Rain” are confirmation of Markéta’s reluctant acceptance of the pair’s mutual celebrity and their increasingly divergent paths. Her frequent shyness in front of the camera, her quiet hesitation and unwillingness to take photos with fans, underscore the overwhelming demands placed on not only an unprepared young newcomer to the music industry, but also someone who is not entirely certain that music is what she wants to do. It’s a passion, certainly, but is it a passion she wants to live and breathe for the rest of her life? For Glen, the answer is clear: he’s been living and breathing music since he quit school at 13 and turned to street busking.
On the other hand, Markéta first met Glen when she was 13, and since then, found herself absorbed into his world of music, and more or less along for the ride as his partner and an organically fitting missing piece, if not his muse. Yet in one of the film’s few interviews with her, Irglová states she needs to “find” herself and her own ideas about music. By the end of The Swell Season, she looks on from the wings of the stage with a pleased smile as Hansard tears into a performance of “Say It to Me Now.” Her expression indicates how committed to the man she remains, but also how distant from his music she’s become. (At the same time, she’s pursuing her own music: Irglová releases her first solo album, Anar, on 11 October.)
It takes great resolve and a certain kind of love to remain close after romance. Their work demands they collaborate and work through conflicts. Their relationship now, the film reveals, is equally beautiful and tragic, as they’re united by a shared passion and torn apart by the same thing. Neither would have achieved the success they have today had they never collaborated, and Once’s achievement owes as much to their musical synergies as it does to the sweetness of their romantic chemistry.
But it’s that same joyous stardom that arouses Hansard’s sense of having finally made it after years and years of struggle, which ultimately became deleterious to his bond with the shy and much younger (by 18 years) Irglová. The chilly black and white imagery of The Swell Season offers a somber contrast to the warmer tones of Once. Considered together, the films explore that kind of love that serves a momentary purpose rather than lasting a lifetime.