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Once (2007)

"Before viewing" talks introduce the film without spoilers. Watch it, then click on the "After viewing" talk for more. More»» by Randy Heffner

Why the film is worth your time

Both the music and the story are excellent, and the way they are intertwined notably raises the impact and resonance of the film’s exploration of relationships and reconciliation. The story is thinly told, yet it feels that nothing important is left out.

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"After viewing" talks assume that you have seen the film. They will contain spoilers. More»» by Randy Heffner

How the film enriched and changed me

Once strengthened for me the Beauty of relationships and commitment. For a time, Guy and Girl have a wonderful thing going in the music they share and in the smiles and laughs they have together. It would be easy for them to think they could find real love by abandoning their existing relationships and going off together into the Perfect Bliss of songs and harmony. They each have quite sufficient reason to severe past ties and, if they did so, many would say that they indeed took the path of True Love. She says (in Czech) that she loves him, he is enthralled with her music, her husband is a jerk, Catherine cheated on him — why not? Yet, are difficult and injured relationships really only good for the rubbish heap? How easily should we discard a relationship when another fails us? And don’t we fail them terribly much, also? Guy and Girl both follow a path of Deeper True Love that involves forgiveness and reconciliation — commitment to relationship survives our failures, even failures like those in Once. I hope for that type of commitment to more deeply infuse my own life and relationships.

The goodness in Once begins with the opening sequence, which stands on its own. After chasing down the heroin addict and recovering his money (and his guitar case), Guy has compassion on him and gives the addict some of the money the addict had stolen from him. Guy knows the addict (he refers to him by name: Anton), and perhaps it’s not wise to handout cash to an addict, but even so, it establishes Guy as a caring individual who will do a kindness that many would not. And doing what many would not is just what Guy and Girl do in their relationships.

Although goodness in Guy’s character shows from the start, I am struck that the force behind the story’s trajectory is mostly the strength of Girl’s character. She sees in him the heart for relationship, she draws out his music, she draws firm lines in their relationship, she makes his music project happen, and she sets examples both for reconciliation in their existing relationships and for the closing perspective on their own relationship. I want to have the same sensitivity, strength, and wisdom, especially in the times when my relationships are hard.

From when she first meets Guy, she is sensitive enough to perceive that his past love is still alive and she pushes him toward reconciliation. He denies the love, saying he doesn’t want her back, but then he almost calls Catherine that same night. The next day, after a lovely visit over lunch, her music captures him. She’s one step ahead of him here, too: When he tells her the song is in C, she says, “I know, I can see.” She presses him, wanting to learn more about what happened with his past love, seeking whether it might be restored. Her character shows also in little ways, such as when she is firm on taking responsibility for paying for the hoover repair.

Most pointedly, Girl's character is especially firm against his suggestion of a casual night together. This sets the film off in its atypical direction of being a story of a different kind of love — and deeper than the love between the two of them. To Guy's credit, he realizes immediately that he had made a mistake, and he finds her the next day to apologize and mend the relationship — and he remains true to his word that "it won't happen again." When the subject of "hanky panky" comes up again at the end, it is Girl that says it "would be nice." Then she makes a comment that is quite rare these days in its recognition of the place of relational context for sexuality. He seems not sure of what he's hearing her say — does she mean that she might want that casual night after all? But then she continues on with saying that it would "be worthless." Her vision of sexuality's value is based in something other than pleasure: Though it "would be nice" (pleasurable), it "would be worthless." Why? Sexuality both expresses and builds intimacy, and that's not where their relationship is, nor even where it is going. Sexual intimacy at that point would only build something they would immediately tear apart, leaving scars on both of them. Their relationships are headed in different directions. She is to reconcile with her husband — "idiot" that he is — and Guy is headed off to London to reconcile with Catherine. Relationships are worth more than being tossed into the trash, and they are all the more beautiful for being retrieved from the ashes.

I find the music to be extraordinary throughout, and all the more powerful as it informs and infuses the story. On a higher plane, their music plays out a metaphor for their lives. Both of them are trying to make a go of their music, as much as they can, in different ways. They are trying to make their lives work: Both are working on the street, trying to make a living. His heart is in the songs he writes, but he has to play others' songs in the day; only at night is he able to express his heart. She loves her music, but she's barely scraping by to provide for her family. She can only play on a borrowed piano at lunchtime when the store is closed. Through his music, he expresses how he is still drawn back to the beauty he and Catherine had. He wrestles with their estrangement and what he will do with the bitterness of her betrayal. Girl knows her husband's failings, but sings also of her own mistakes. She seems drawn back to her marriage more by principle and by the goodness of restoring her family, not so much because of any deep attraction. Yet the restoration of family has a Beauty that we see as her husband holds their daughter at the end, kisses Girl as she plays piano, and Girl smiles at him. Girl's leadership provides the way of Guy's musical forward movement. As his music moves forward, so does his reconciliation with Catherine. He sees what Girl has done for him and he returns the gift. He gives her music, and her reconciliation moves forward, too.

Guy's Dad makes an especially strong minor note in Once. With his outward appearance, he is a gruff old Irishman. It would be easy to expect him to look down on Guy's music. But he's not that way at all. I loved the personal caring when brought up tea to Guy's room where they were rehearsing — it let's us see the heart inside the roughness. He recognizes Girl's seriousness about paying for the hoover repair, and he gives her the dignity of paying for it while at the same time giving her a gift: It's unlikely that the repair would have been only four Euros. Mostly strongly though, his heart comes through at the end, sitting at the small table in their kitchen, when he says, through the smoke and with a wee wry smile, "Now play it again." I could feel love and respect streaming from the screen and strengthening me.

  • The choice to not give them names which, in a sense, keeps reflection on the film from being concretely tied down to someone else's life — it is as though the film is a fill-in-the-blank sentence, calling for us to put in our own names.
  • The very first words that Guy is singing as the film opens are "When the healing has begun" — the film is about just that (the song is a Van Morrison song).
  • When Girl first comes up to talk to Guy, she's carrying a magazine the title of which, in big letters, is "Issues" — which is a key element of what the film deals with.
  • Guy's and Girl's first playing together in the music shop — it's a magical moment of relationship and music creation. The hand-held camera adds to the intimacy, and their smiles show the pure joy musicians have when a song comes together. And the four-second shot of Billy (the shop owner) smiling is a wonderful touch.
  • The late night with Guy and Girl on the steps in front of her place, and him saying simply, as he leaves, "Thanks for the company. I needed it." — it shows a beautiful friendship moment that needn't be romantic or sexual.
  • The street audience that Girl gets as she walks out of the late night convenience store, singing. Also the reddish tint given to the scene — her life has its own music.
  • The home movies of Catherine that play on Guy's computer while he sings Lies — it shows how much beauty is there even in only the memory of a broken relationship.
  • Girl taking charge of Guy's recording project, negotiating with the studio, cleaning up his dress, arranging for the bank meeting, her telling the band that Guy's singer-songwriter music is great — it was a beautiful gift and a good thing he very much needed.
  • The serendipity of applying for a loan for recording music and having the loan officer be a frustrated musician — we are cared for much more than we realize sometimes.
  • The singing party — a truly good thing to share a whole night of the songs that everyone has inside them.
  • By the ocean, when he asks her, in Czech, if she still loves her husband, her response, in Czech and therefore unknown to him and to the audience is, "I love you." — this, as underpinning for the remainder of their relationship, recognizes the truth that, though we may feel for another, it is not always the right thing to pursue those feelings.
  • Their little argument over whether she can give it a go on the motorcycle — a beautiful, playful moment.
  • The hilarity of Timmy the drummer not understanding at all about the recording process, and Eamon's (the recording engineer) finding out that none of them have done recording — it shows their starting point quite clearly.
  • The contrast between the first moments of recording and the seeming chaos before it — the opening of When Your Mind's Made Up makes a wonderful and smooth entry into the powerful music.
  • The break in recording where Girl's mom and Ivonka come — another beautiful, playful moment, full of life.
  • That, before the whole recording project, Guy tells Girl that he is going back to London — it puts a context around their relationship, though they still are drawn to each other.
  • Her breaking down while singing The Hill — it shows the depth of her feeling, even though her marriage "doesn't really work."
  • Their dreaming about the possibilities of her going to London with him, ended by her asking "Can I bring my mother?" — it is a reality check representing the other ties that they both have.
  • In the "car test," Girl sits close-in to guy, then on the beach they play more together and walk alone — there is deep caring and connection, and it is Beautiful even though their relationships are headed in different directions.
  • When Girl tells him that her husband is coming, she says, "We'll try to make it work. It's for the best." — it's a true and good recognition of the hard work of relationships, especially considering all that has come before in the film.
  • After he's waiting for her and she doesn't come later that night, the screen does a slow fade-to-black — it captures well the closing of their relationship.
  • His dad's reaction to the recording and his encouragement for Guy to go to London — another beautiful moment of love and close relationship.
  • Guy's and Catherine's phone conversation, with her saying, "I've missed you," and "I'm glad you've decided to come," and him saying he has missed her, too, ending with her saying, "Hurry up." — it is a heart-felt renewal and new beginning.
  • That Guy and Girl miss saying goodbye directly, and especially that as he walks back through the streets, he hears a woman saying, "Want to buy the flowers," and he turns to look for Girl — it emphasizes the end of their close relationship. I teared up, not so much for the ending of their relationship as for the Beauty of the time they had together.
  • The sequence of his departure, from streets to bus to airport check-in to coffee alone, all with plain expression, then Girl receiving his piano gift, then his walking to the airport gate, smiling — it intensified the impact for me of the Beauty of their time together, and all the more because, as he walks off camera to the right, we're left looking at the contrasting words "imperfect" and "perfect" in the advertisement on the wall. Is it a perfect ending or imperfect? Do we deal with our imperfections or live as though others must be perfect?
  • The return at the ending montage to the first song they shared together, Falling Slowly.
  • The final shot of her sitting at the piano, looking out the window — it takes the focus beyond her life, her music, her piano. The story's about something more beyond, not simply a Guy and a Girl getting the music they love.

Screenshots and dialog copyright © 2007 by the filmmakers.


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