Monday, 21 January 2008

review: once (john carney, 2007)

One of the first things you pick up in just about any film theory class is that film is not a representation of reality, but a constructed artefact, a readable text, a mediated series of artificial images. Now, everyone old enough to speak can grasp the distinction between real and fictional images, but this point goes deeper than that, underlining the fact that a film is, first and foremost, a sequence of images, and not a transparent window into another world. What is most important is not what happens in the film's plot, but how it is presented - how this plot is constructed into images, how technique is utilized to lend visual and thematic richness to this narrative framework, and so on.

Every once in a while, however, you get a film like Once, which undermines this viewpoint. It makes little sense to look at Once and attempt to speak about its formal aspects, its thematic development, its technical approach. This is a film about two characters - an Irish busker with a repair-shop job and ambitions to be a songwriter, and a young, near-penniless but musically gifted Czech immigrant with a broken marriage - about the delicate but intense relationship that develops over the few days following their first encounter, about the effect each has on the other, and on the beautiful music they make together.

This simple, intimate setup represents the totality of Once's concerns, and the film's sole drive is to represent the unfolding of this relationship, in as direct and unadorned a fashion as possible. This is something entirely different to the studied, meticulously constructed, affected rawness and pretend-immediacy of a film like Cloverfield (Matt Reeves, 2008 - review forthcoming, but I will just take this opportunity to exhort you to run out and catch it on the biggest screen you can, now). Once does not adopt a self-consciously "real" style; rather, it elects to follow its characters with as transparent, simple and uncomplicated an eye as possible - it's just about the polar opposite of last year's other music film, Julie Taymor's maximalist Across the Universe.

All of which pretty much places the entire film on the shoulders of its two leads, Glenn Hansard and Marketa Iglova, and it is a testament to them that the film succeeds as well as it does. Their performances are endearing, subtle, heartfelt and never less than disarmingly, entirely convincing - there is a feeling of genuineness to every gesture, word and look that is rare. All of which means it does not matter in the slightest that the film is somewhat technically shoddy, the camerawork is unremarkable at best, the lighting in many scenes is somewhat lacking, and whatever other complaint I could throw at it if I were feeling objective and/or mean.

Actually, I should point out that even within these technical restrictions, there are moments when Once achieves its own brand of beauty transcending the mundanity of its setting - as when the camera follows Iglova as she walks home from the local shop, singing to Hansard's music playing on the discman she just bought batteries for. But these moments are always closely focused on Hansard and Iglova, and on the alternately delicate and soaring music they share.

Once is perhaps too slight to be a Great Film or a masterpiece, and there isn't really anything beneath its surface, but that doesn't really matter - this isn't a film that sets out for greatness, but that unassumingly aims simply to share a few momentuous days in the life of its protagonists, and that feels as ephemeral and spontaneous as the experiences it documents. It's a film that's by turns joyous and melancholy, and that, in its own way, is just about perfect.