I’ve watched countless films in my time and few have had a long-lasting impact on me. Those that have are inevitably the ones that form the frequent top 10 lists and though their positions might change, the list stays the same. The Goonies, Goodfellas, The Truman Show, Clerks are just a few of the reliable films I can always fall back on because they never fail to entertain me, inspire me or move me in some way.
Even fewer films have managed to have such an impact on me that they have literally not been able to leave me for days. A perfect example of this would be Martyrs, but I’ll be talking about that film in more detail on 28th October as part of the 13-part Horror blog series for Halloween. And now, another film has now managed this feat – and that film is a little indie gem called Once. It had been sat unopened in my DVD collection since I bought it in 2008 and one night last week my fiancée plucked it from the expansive DVD shelf as part of a selection of films for me to choose to watch. Seen as I was going away for four days I opted for the romantic film as opposed to Will Ferrel in tight basketball shorts and a merkin. That night after watching the film I was soppier than a janitor’s mop.
I used to go through a phase of buying Empire and Total Film and then subsequently purchasing every film they raved about from blockbuster to bargain bin, and this included the purchase of Once – a little indie Irish film about a heartbroken busking Dubliner and a Czechoslovakian immigrant and her broken vacuum. Like many of these other films I went through a phase of purchasing they ended up confined to dust collecting on my DVD shelf, only to be considered for viewing but inevitably re-shelved for another day. And now, when I’ve watched such a gem as Once I curse myself for not having ripped the packaging open the moment I purchased it. But hey – they say everything happens for a reason, and I guess I was meant to have watched it now.
Once opens with the kind of scene that is written and directed in a way that only an indie film can pull off. The distant shaky-cam is focussed on Guy (as in guy, not Guy…) busking on the streets of Dublin with his re-strung and damaged guitar. In front of him lies his guitar case glistening with Dubliner’s loose change. Lurking around him is a scruffy looking man who has his eyes on Guy’s cash. They exchange warnings and reassurances which lead straight to a chase through the streets of Dublin as Mr Scruffy has scooped up the guitar case and made a run for it. What we see at the end of this scene is a sign of things to come for Guy, and a reassurance to the audience that this guy is someone we can stick by.
When the scene between Guy and Mr Scruffy fades to black, the film title is introduced and the screen fades in to Guy busking but this time at night. As he plays a song – one of his own – the camera watches him from a distance, like any passing member of the public might do on their walk home from the pub. Then as he busts out a powerful, from-the-heart vocal with a shredding of his already worn guitar the camera starts to move closer. It’s intrigue on behalf of the audience; this creeping shot that gets closer and closer as the song plays on is us as the audience being invited to become more intimate with this busker than just passing by or standing at a distance. Then as we get even closer, just close enough to see the words of the song on his face, the tempo of the song slows almost as much as Guy’s inner strength turns to torment. And as the camera steps back slightly, perhaps a little embarrassed that we’ve been so voyeuristic with this man’s heartbreak, we see Girl standing in front of him in awe. The story has well and truly begun.
From then on the film unfolds from perfect scene to perfect scene. Nothing is out of place in this film. Each shot, each inflection, each song is perfectly placed so that you cannot help but stay with these characters and wish for the best. The chemistry is immediate from the moment they first meet, and each progression of their musical journey parallels their will they/won’t they relationship. Both Guy and Girl are coping with their own heartbreak, each still carrying a torch for a lover far from home but not far from their hearts; even in the biggest of cities you can feel never more alone than when you’re without the one you love. It’s what draws Girl to Guy, it is how Guy connects to Girl and ultimately it is what keeps them closer than they ever care to admit. The scene where they play Guy’s music together for the first time in the music shop is stunning – naturally the two actors have rehearsed this scene countless times yet the way in which they show their development is key to the rest of the film. The little smile from Guy as Girl picks up the melody and brings the song to life is echoed across the audiences face.
It is the subtle nuances of this film that make it one of the most beautiful love stories. They communicate their feelings through song but it’s the casual glances, longing stares and shy smiles that say more than any kiss or love scene ever could. Though Guy initially attempts to get Girl in to bed with all the tact and subtly of a teenage boy with socks down his pants, both have their reservations as they seem to truly believe that their flames are the ones that are truly meant for them despite the intense chemistry between them. As the heat and the tension begins to build, they put it all into their music and together they find a new lease of life and a hope that they can make something more of themselves. Girl gives Guy a renewed passion in producing his music and together they achieve the goal of producing their very own demo CD. The moment in the studio when Girl plays her unfinished song ‘The Hill’ she breaks down, the anguish of her distant relationship clearly too much for her. Guy comforts her and in this moment it is abundantly clear to them and to us that these two are meant to be together.
They emerge from the studio in the early hours of the morning, bleary-eyed yet buzzing from the thrill of producing their own music. Guy tells Girl that he plans to go after his ex; Girl tells Guy she’s giving it another shot with her husband who is moving to Dublin. You can see it on Guy’s face: one night separates them from their fate – the fork in the road has presented itself. The last scene between them is beautiful; the entire development of their journey culminates here as Guy asks her with all the love, lust and moderate desperation in his face to spend their last night together. Her physical reaction says it all, and though she tells him, “It will only end in hanky-panky” she accepts and says she will visit him that night. She never does, and with one last selfless display of his love, Guy leaves behind a gift as he heads to Dublin airport and off to be with the woman he was never meant to be with.
As the end credits ran, I first sat there gobsmacked. I then proceeded to shout at the screen that it was wrong, just plain fucking wrong! How could they not end up together? Why didn’t he fight for her? Why is he going to be with someone who has proven themselves not worthy of him? I was furious because I had watched the film through the eyes of the Hollywood machine – I expected with all of the romance in my heart that they were destined to be together. My fiancée summed it up perfectly – “They were meant to be together. That doesn’t mean to say they would end up together. The film is called ‘Once’ – you’re only meant to meet that one person once. Just because your paths cross it doesn’t mean you’ll stick together.” And that’s why the film didn’t leave me for days. I was genuinely affected by the characters journey, and though I knew it was fictional I found it difficult to separate that from real life. I sat there and pondered how on earth it was possible that they didn’t end up together when it was staring them both in the face, and how many people on this Earth had experienced that. How many people have sat there and regretted a decision that led them away from the one they were meant to be with? Once told a beautifully unique love story – you can fall in love but never be together. To be honest it terrifies me even now and it just makes me grateful that I evidently am one of the lucky few that has managed to find my love and my muse and keep her.
Once is a musical through-and-through there’s no doubt about that. The intense focus on music and the use of rhythm and lyrics to convey the characters emotions is the key to moving this film forward. But don’t be scared; this is no Rent, Les Misérables or Glee – there are no dance numbers, no mass-crowd singing, no emphasis on falsetto’s or solos. This is the story of two musicians with a cultural divide that find unity and a connection in the music that they play together. Naturally the placement of the songs are relevant to the stage the two characters find themselves in but the lyrics are poignant, beautifully written and not immediately obvious. Metaphors, chord changes and casual glances allow the audience to see this unspoken connection between the two lead characters unfold and we pray for that happy ending we never normally care for at the end of a romantic comedy. Sadly, it doesn’t always end that way.