Once celebrates the complexity of artistry and relationships, using methods as remarkably simple as they are effective.
The Guy (Glen Hansard) stands sandwiched between bourgeois storefronts, busking on the streets of Dublin. The camera zooms in as his singing intensifies: soon he's yelping over his own frantic strumming, the wood on his guitar worn through in spots, suggesting that he does this a lot. His guitar case, with lining red as a valentine, lays open on the sidewalk in front of him, shaped like a floppy heart. When the Girl (Markéta Irglová) enters the shot, we know what to expect. She'll be charming and quirky, matching his sensitivity.
But wait. Girl throws a mere 10 cents into his case, and Guy looks annoyed. He mocks her, and not in a way to suggest sexual tension. Doesn't he know how this kind of film works?
In fact, Once isn't quite this type of film. This even when Girl shows up the next day, adorably dragging her Hoover behind her, in hopes that Guy will fix it at his father's vacuum repair shop. They spend a day together, connecting over their love of music and differently broken pasts. But then he clumsily propositions her, in the fashion that usually works in movie romances: "Stay with me tonight." And she doesn't just say no to him, she says no to our expectation too: "Fuck this."
The plot isn't the only way Once challenges conventions. It offers up its musical numbers almost like soliloquies, which is fitting, since Guy and Girl are struggling artists who tend to channel their feelings through songs. Even Guy and Girl's getting-to-know-you scene leads into a short musical number, as Guy plucks out a bluesy ditty to tell his life story.
We learn about Guy nearly straight away: he recently left his cheating girlfriend of 10 years, lives with his dad (Bill Hodnett) and wants a record contract. Girl's story unfolds a bit more circuitously. A Czech immigrant, she is living in poverty with her mother (Danuse Ktrestova) and her two-year-old daughter (Kate Haugh); she also has a husband (Senan Haugh) back in Prague. With each newly revealed detail, we see that Girl is not a typical romantic lead, and increasingly unlikely to form a regular movie couple with Guy.
They do, however, share a talent for creating music. She practices at a piano shop when she's not selling flowers on the street; a trip to the shop with Guy results in an impromptu collaboration. As the song comes to life, and she adds vocal harmonies and piano accents to his acoustic guitar, the result is more lucid and lovely than his solo efforts on the street. As their eyes meet, their faces contort and strain, and lyrics get jumbled or her fingers struggle to find the right notes, it's clear this is as much a love scene as it is a musical number.
Encouraged by Girl, Guy decides to record a demo, with help from her and a ragtag band of street musicians. As Guy pools his resources, he finds that music is a way to connect with other people as well. When they sit down with a banker (Sean Millar), he plays his music through a tinny cassette player, asking earnestly for a loan to pay for a weekend's worth of studio time. The bank manager nods, then says, "I want to show you something," at which point he pulls out his own guitar and begins singing another ballad, presumably his own, evidence of a dream he abandoned long ago.
This theme of wanting to make music more than anything is recurring, whether it's typical Irish-style singing over pints or the long-time-coming affirmation Guy receives from his father after sharing his recording. In Once, music is both intimate and communal, always bringing deeper understanding between people.
Depth is also explored through repetition, as we see the same songs played and sung in different contexts (also useful here is Hansard and his band The Frames' virtually obscurity in the States, so to U.S. viewers, anyway, the material seems fresh). The song "Leave," Guy's belter at the beginning of the film, morphs into something else entirely by film's end: once stripped of its urgency, it becomes more resonant and sweet. Similarly, when the band records a version of a jam ballad in the studio, the lyrics ("When your mind's made up/There's no point in trying to change it") oscillate between being full of longing or resignation, depending on the setting, which director John Carney shifts from the studio to the beach and back again.
Varying settings occasion other reconsiderations as well. Contrasting Dublin's downtown streets (their affluence an effect of an unprecedented economic boom in Ireland) with ocean bluffs and wooded trails, Once looks at a range of creative settings. The studio's warmth and luxury differs from the sparse bedroom where Girl writes lyrics over Guy's music on a cassette player, while her daughter sleeps in her crib next to her. And when Girl goes to her second job, cleaning houses, the posh yet lifeless digs remind us that creativity is often born from hardship. Guy's room is small and cluttered, and Girl shares her TV with the other Eastern European immigrants in her building: as clichéd as it might sound, their disadvantages enrich their art.
Still, and even though its ethos is decidedly bohemian, the film never lapses into romantic idealism. At no point do the leads make you swoon or root too hard for their union. Rather, they hold so much back from themselves and each other, it's as though as you don't know them, but only glimpsed them in passing. Once celebrates the complexity of artistry and relationships, using methods as remarkably simple as they are effective.