July 22nd, 2007

Altman (filmmaker)

"The Car Test"

In an era where most movies are trying to whack you over the head with their slick photography, frenetic editing and overblown spectacle, John Carney's thoroughly understated Once seems to be an anomaly. It almost feels like it escaped from another decade, concentrating on human interaction and inspiration. There is little in the way of plot; a vacuum cleaner technician (Glen Hansard, who lead the band The Frames, which Carney was in) supplements his income by playing his old, broken guitar in the street. One day a woman (Markéta Irglová) strikes up a conversation about his music with him; she was trained as a concert pianist and recognizes his talent. Their friendship grows and they become collaborators; there is a mutual unfulfilled attraction between the two of them that ends up being the creative impulse for their expressive songs. Their relationship and its effects on their lives is what the film follows, but the core of the film is their deep love for the music.

This isn't the type of film to have big blow-outs or soul-searching dramatic scenes, the characters instead expressing the inexpressible through their songs. As a result, there are extended musical sequences in the film when the characters are writing or performing songs, often playing out them out in full; if one wishes to praise the cast it should not be just for their naturalistic performances, but for their musicianship as well. There is an unrefined quality to most of the songs, which is fitting as the viewer is hearing most of them in their unfinished state, but they are also very emotionally engaging and illustrative of the characters, whom one gets to know very well despite never learning their names. The tension between Irglová and Hansard is what generates a lot of their inspiration for the songs they write over the course of the movie, and their goals are modest enough - one might even say 'working class' enough - to be completely believable.

The film might strike some as being slow, and it might frustrate others waiting for a more traditional "underdog makes good" storyline, but this isn't that film. There is humor as well, but it is generated from situations, dialogue, and affection for the characters; a memorable sequence features Irglová, who has gotten Hansard to agree to look at her malfunctioning Hoover, ends up walking around Dublin with her vaccum cleaner in tow like a dog. It is shot by Tim Fleming in a very straightforward docudrama style, often guerilla (at times, one can see people accidentally glancing into the camera). The movie keeps itself quite real... what is perhaps the most significant line in the film is spoken by Irglová in Czech, but Hansard never understands what it is that she said - and as it is not subtitled, neither did I until I researched the film prior to writing this. It is also open-ended... the fates of the characters are left to the viewer to decide, the movie instead concentrates on capturing that one moment that changed so much for them. Well worth seeking out if you want a change of pace from this summer's deafening and lackluster blockbusters.

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