Once (2007) is a simple, charming, enchanting film, a musical in which all the singing occurs in an entirely natural way. One of the main characters is a street singer (and a vacuum cleaner repairman) who is trying to break into the recording business. The main character, referred to in the credits merely as the "boy," is an Irishman who sings on the street for coins. He is played by Glen Hansard. One night a young woman, the "girl" (Marketa Irglova), stops and strikes up a conversation. When she learns that he repairs "Hoovers," she asks him to repair her malfunctioning vacuum cleaner, and they strike up a friendship. Early on, he suggests they spend the night together, but she refuses him. For the most part their friendship is platonic, but you sense something subterranean going on. Both of them are on the apparent down sides of relationships. The boy's girlfriend has moved to London, and he says that he will not see her again—though all the songs he writes are about her. The girl has left her husband in Czechoslovakia. She tells the boy that their relationship is over, but she never admits to not loving her husband.
In a music store, the boy discovers that the girl can play the piano and sing. They sing one of his songs together. Later he asks her to help him record some of his songs so that he can take them to London, where he has decided to go to unite with his girlfriend and to try to get a recording contract. The girl helps him negotiate a fee for use of the recording studio and helps him find other musicians to play with.
The night before he is to leave, the boy is about to say goodbye to the girl but then suggests that they spend the rest of the evening together, hanging out. She hesitates and asks him whether this might involve hanky-panky. He admits that it might. She agrees to come over to his apartment. But she never shows up. They never meet again. He does leave her a parting gift.
This is a film about what might have been. The boy and girl discover one another through their mutual love of music, through the experience of creating music together. Though many of the songs may be inspired by the boy's loss of his former girlfriend, you realize as the film progresses that the way the boy and girl perform the songs together is an expression of their developing feelings for one another. Hansard and Irglova co-wrote a number of the songs in the film. Hansard wrote several others, and Irglova's own composition "The Hill" is also featured.
This was a low-budget film with a budget of $150,000. There is nothing glitzy or slick about it. The interior shots seem to take place in real music stores and pubs and recording studios and apartments. The clothes the characters wear look like clothes they really own. The camerawork is often jittery and unbalanced. The music the boy and girl sing together sounds like what it is—improvised, poorly rehearsed but real music.
The end of Once is bittersweet, but mainly sweet. The boy and the girl proceed with their lives, without each other. This is a small film with a modest focus. It is almost like a documentary. But it is full of life and quiet passion and joy. The characters and their music make it much larger than it aspires to be. With limited resources and inexperienced actors, director John Carney has made one of the best little films I've seen in a long time.