As cruel and venal as Hollywood is, the bastards still love fairytales. No matter how great the influence of corporate America and corporate thinking, Hollywood, at heart, still roots for The Little Engine That Could. That’s why the Sundance Festival is made to feel important. That’s why Jim Jarmusch has a career. And that’s why Once became such a phenomenon with the insiders… because by believing they could make it a hit. If it had cost fifty mill and starred Catherine Zeta it would have been that cookery movie, and you’d never have heard of it. As it is, it cost three grand, starred a busker and some Czech girl… and won an Oscar. As it is, it’s a wishing well.
A busker meets a flower girl. A long time ago he would’ve been played by Charlie Chaplin (Once isn’t a new story). The flower girl needs her vacuum cleaner repaired, and the busker’s day-job is a vacuum cleaner repair man. He offers to help her, but we all know who’s offering help and who’s receiving. The flower girl encourages the busker to make something of his music. Together, they make a record. He – possibly maybe – thinks they’ve a future together. But she’s reluctant; it’s a lot easier to make a record than to stay together. That’s where Once departs from the Chaplin template. There isn’t a chance The Tramp would have chosen music above the girl.
Since Once was made for buttons, realism has to be used to its advantage, or else what’s real risks making the movie look cheap. Although some concessions are made to romance (witness the bank manager who gives the busker a loan because he’s a wannabe musician too) mostly the movie has a practical approach. The busker and the flower girl each come with plausible baggage. Their stories aren’t overly maudlin, but nor is their fraught relationship histrionic or seemingly made-for-the-screen. They are people who’ve had bad luck and who act cautious, but not walled-off. If they were younger, they’d cry more. But they’re adults, and love is only one concern.
Glen Hansard has a tough face, but his big eyes help to sucker you. When he sings, it’s as if he had an hour to live. His performance has a f— it, live-for-now energy. You can picture him spellbinding an audience. And that’s a rare thing. Mostly movie singers don’t look like they’d compel cats. He gets a lot of moments to shine in Once (it is a modern musical at heart), but he’s also good when he’s reacting. Just look at him when he realises he’s crossed the etiquette threshold after he asks the flower girl to stay the night… he could bed Julia Roberts with that much need.
As the flower girl, Markéta Irglová is beautiful matter-of-factly; she doesn’t trouble herself about it. She has an East European’s way of making English sound freshly scrubbed, free of solipsism. Gormless as the comparison might be (Germany and Czechoslovakia aren’t exactly the same) she reminds me of Franka Potente as a screen presence. That same way Franka made you think Jason Bourne must be worth rooting for (because she liked him) – that’s the way Markéta makes you root for Hansard. She isn’t given to love unabashedly, but that’s why her love seems real.
Once isn’t the greatest movie romance in history. It won’t give you “inspiration to last the year”, as Steven Spielberg said to USA Today. But if you are a power-broker in Hollywood; if you do sleep on a pile of money… bodies buried under your private screening room, then watching Once is like giving money to the homeless. You who are without scruples; who would make another Indiana Jones movie after calling the last one The Last Crusade… can tell yourself that you still believe in movies, without effects, or stars or product placements to their name. Once, for Hollywood, is wish-fulfillment. It’s easy to love a movie made without thought of making a hit.