I found myself resisting Once (2007) for the first half hour or so—it might have been the comparisons to the Before Sunrise/Sunset films, or the fact that there was something that seemed vaguely coy and manipulative about the initial introduction and interaction of the two primary characters. But by the time the impromptu guitar/piano duet unfolds between Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová in the back of a local music store I had given myself over completely to the film’s undeniable charms, for at that point the film seems to have found its footing (quickly banished, thankfully, is the vacuum cleaner seeming to foretell an overkill of indie-fare quirkiness), establishing an unassuming low-key rhythm that carries the film to its wistful conclusion.
The film holds up because of the chemistry of the two leads and the undeniable rapport they share when music wipes away their differences and pasts and fuses them temporarily together; Markéta, however, is particularly entrancing— her delicately wrought performance and ethereal singing voice mask what a catastrophe the character could have been if played wrong (how easy it would have been to veer into the territory of foreign-accented gamine or paper-pursuing femme-fatale!). To my mind, the best moment of the film is all hers—in search of batteries for a dead walkman in the late hours of the night, wrapped awkwardly in a tatty old robe, she mentally applies verses to a beat Hansard has written as she walks home. The camera, capturing every second without daring to cut away, watches and listens as the tentative hummed words slowly give way to an implausible crescendo of a fully produced song—it’s a bit of magic only possible in the movies, of course, but it brought instantly to mind my own long walks around Europe, headphones in my ears, the notes seeming to provide the backdrop of what felt like my own little movie that only I knew I was starring in. And perhaps that’s the main appeal of the film for me—it feels like a brief glimpse into somebody else’s treasured, half-remembered memories, and I’m just grateful to be given a chance to take a quick peek.