Behind the Music


Boy meets girl in the streets of Dublin. Both are aspiring musicians. She’s Czech and estranged from her husband. He’s Irish and mourning a broken romance. They make music together but don’t quite make love. After they cut a promising CD, he departs for London and the possibility of a career; she stays in Dublin to patch up her marriage. The End.

There’s not a single spoiler in any of the above because your enjoyment of Once entirely depends on how much pleasure you take in the company of the guy (named Guy in the end credits) and the girl (named Girl). Not pleasure in the acting skills of Marketa Irglova and Glen Hansard, mind you, but pleasure in their company, which is quite a different thing. Director-writer John Carney seems to have spun the characterizations out of the actors’ personalities, and it becomes evident that a lot of the dialogue must have been based on improvised interaction between the two. Hansard and Irglova are professional musicians (Carney actually worked for Hansard in a rock band called The Frames); the songs they perform are their own compositions. And rumor has it that they fell in love while publicizing the film, and wouldn’t it be pretty to think so.

I did take pleasure in their company. Hansard has an advantage over Irglova in that his face registers emotion quickly and forcefully while hers, tight and tensely attractive in an Eastern European way, does not. True, her character is more self-contained than his, but sometimes her smile seems maintained more by the muscles in her cheeks than by happiness. Still, they click. The chemistry isn’t Hollywood-glamorous but simply the sort we encounter among our more engaging friends when they pair off. Not conventionally beautiful, they look right together and are jointly more interesting than either would be in the company of someone else. (I feel something similar about their music—wouldn’t bother listening to it at home but liked them making it onscreen.)

Reinforcing this mundane attractiveness is the filmmaking itself. Most of the camerawork is hand-held and jiggly, and a long lens allowed the crew to stay so far from the inexperienced actors that they were able to relax into naturalness and improvisation. It’s as if the director, sitting with you in his flat, had glanced out the window and pointed to a couple walking down the street. “Hey, look at those kids. Aren’t they interesting? Let’s follow them for a while.” And you do.

The streets and shops turn out to contain lots of nice people: the music-store manager who doesn’t mind the pals plunking away at one of his pianos for free; the old lady on a bus smiling when the guy apologizes for using the F-word; the curmudgeonly owner of a clothing store who, asked by our hero if the suit he’s trying on fits, growls, “You’re gorgeous!”

Once is an ordinary pleasure but it contains one extraordinary scene. Unable to get her CD player to work, the girl learns one of her friend’s songs by sight-reading the sheet music while walking the nocturnal streets. The camera tracks away from her as she constantly moves toward us, and her voice swells and...Yes! There’s a song in her heart! It’s an MGM moment, like Gene Kelly singin’ in the rain, but the camera is nervously swaying and bobbing as if this were a cinéma-vérité documentary and Irglova is ruminating the song rather than belting it out. The pedestrians she passes are just going about their business and maybe don’t even know they’re in a movie, much less extras in a musical. This scene is an odd blend of lyricism and griminess, and, like the entire movie, oddly memorable.

Once has achieved major acclaim. It deserves minor, honorable affection.

That Irish guy might be headed for fame and riches in London, but what singer nowadays could ever enjoy the sort of ascent Edith Piaf achieved in France? A street waif abandoned by her mother and raised in a brothel (her grandmother was the madam), she was a national treasure by the end of World War II and possibly the most famous Frenchwoman since Joan of Arc. She also was raddled by illnesses, accident-prone, and a morphine addict. Many lovers walked out on her, and over her. By the time she was forty, she looked seventy-five. By the time she was forty-seven, she was dead. In Saving Private Ryan, an American soldier listens to a recording of Piaf singing “Tu es partout” and remarks, “The krauts won’t have to kill me. This song will make me cut my own throat.” He means this as a compliment and it’s an insightful one. Listening to Piaf makes depression delectable.

The Olivier Dahan film about her, La Vie en Rose, is an art-house hit but it’s a mess. A mess with a lot going for it, to be sure: a truly great performance by Marion Cotillard and rich scenic textures—you can practically smell the squalor of slums and lowdown bars and feel the plush of upper-class dinner parties.

But Dahan has chosen to tell his story by flashing forward and backward in time, and this sort of zigzag approach works only when a filmmaker uses it to clarify the multifarious themes of a life, and to bring unity to the drama. In the supreme classic of the genre, Citizen Kane, the time-leaping collates the elements of Kane’s life: sex, politics, family, business. La Vie en Rose achieves unity all right but, alas, it’s a stifling unity. Piaf and the misery of love, Piaf and the misery of poverty, Piaf and the misery of disease, Piaf and the misery of orphanage, Piaf and the misery of celebrity, misery, misery, misery. (And all the farewell performances! From the middle of the movie till its fade-out, every time Piaf mounts the stage, she keels over. This is show-business as martyrdom.) It’s no good arguing that Piaf’s life was indeed miserable and that her art was distilled from her suffering. A movie about her should surely achieve that distillation, too. But this film is mainly monotonous.

Still, you should see it for Cotillard. Less than thirty when she took on the role, she easily spans the age range of twenty through (a decrepit) forty-seven. Cotillard simulates the gait and gestures that convey Piaf’s contradictory qualities of shyness and defiance. The cares of the world may be on those narrow shoulders, but the Little Sparrow is an Atlas of the sentimental life.

Dahan’s best directing is in two scenes. What Piaf takes to be a real visit from her most cherished lover, the boxer Marcel Cerdan (likeably played by Jean-Pierre Martins), turns out to be a ghostly visitation, Cerdon having already been killed in a plane crash. Ominously, the camera tracks the blissfully ignorant Piaf running about her apartment searching for a present she’s bought for her boyfriend while her entourage works up the nerve to break the sad news. The spookiness enriches the pathos and vice versa.

And in the scene in which Piaf first achieves stardom in a tony music hall, the singer, half-paralyzed by opening-night nerves, sidles center stage, opens her mouth and...we hear nothing. She is singing but the director has deadened the sound so that we watch the audience’s response. It’s the best employment of sudden silence I’ve encountered since...well, since the final moment of The Sopranos.

Published in the 2007-07-13 issue: 

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

Also by this author
The Right Man for the Job

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads