Warming Refrains

Once. Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglov¡ star in a film written and directed by John Carney.

Attempts to describe the special, potent charms of the Irish film Once tend to be feeble and fumbling. This says plenty about the nature of the movie as well as our tendency to reduce films to common genre denominators. It is not a musical, as advertised. And yet its characters-a glum singer/songwriter (Glen Hansard) and a Czech immigrant woman who supports his music (Marketa Irglov¡)-will grace the screen with complete songs, and fine ones at that. They don’t break irrationally into song, but rather the tunes flow organically out of the tale, as she helps him marshal strength.

Once is also not a mockumentary or a spin-off of reality television, despite the raggedy camera work and seemingly off-the-cuff mise en scne of the project. Made by writer-director John Carney in 17 days for $130,000, the resourceful funkiness of the effort works in terms of its diamond-in-the-roughing-it style. Carney’s film comes off as a drowsy parable in the new era of the singer/songwriter.

Even from the beginning, we recognize that the musician (we never learn his name) is too good for the room; Hansard, who is actually in the band Frame, is reminiscent of Irishman Damien Rice. Both men sing of troubles and the resiliency of the heart in songs that work their way from a whisper to a howl.

Take away its resemblance to a pop-star-in-the-making fable, and the film begins to assume a much more artful character. Once is one of those rare movies-like Terence Davies’s haunting Distant Voices, Still Lives-in which the fundamental power of music is the controlling emotional drive train. Never mind the narrative or the dialogue, intentionally simple as they are. The musical moments touch us most deeply.

Through this remarkable little film, we’re led into the soul of music, all the more deeply because of the raw power of Hansard’s songs. Their uncanny mixture of structure and abandon, of emotion on the sleeve and raw yearning, seem to provide the film itself with a blueprint. Here’s another object lesson in the truism that all great art aspires to the quality of music.

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