by LUKE BAUMGARTEN & r & & r & Once & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & en minutes or so into Once, a guy and a girl -- whose names we never learn -- meet on a Dublin sidewalk. The guy, played with sorrow and yearning by Glen Hansard, has just banged out a mournful song of lost love. The girl (18-year-old Czech singer Mark & eacute;ta Irglov & aacute;), suspecting that the pain, regret and the hint of spite painted on his face couldn't be fictional, asks who the girl is.
"Nobody," he says.
"Bullshit?" she half-states, half-asks. There's a long silence -- he looking incredulous, she mulling over words. "Where is she?"
"Gone...." Her eyes widen. "Dead?"
"No," he replies, his face bending into a smile that's half-amused, half-incredulous, "just gone." Another long silence.
"You play this song for her," she says finally -- the grammar and hard undertones of her native language at war with the lilting, Gaelic-inflected English she's picked up -- "you get her back."
"I don't want her back," the guy says, cutting across her. The words come too fast and too final, we sense, to be the whole truth, or even part of it.
It's an intense moment. First-time director (and Frames bandmate) John Carney leaves a lot of time to let each exchange sink in, the silence carrying a tension that bores uncomfortably into the audience. The first meeting isn't indicative of what their relationship will become, but it's a perfect portrait of each character as they are at that moment. Both are sad and, for different reasons, a little lost. The girl, who is poor but young and in a new country, has a certain weary optimism. The guy's weary, too -- the kind that suggests that he's given up on dreams that could have gotten him out of Dublin.
The relationship they create -- based around a love of simple, folky pop music -- is just about the sweetest thing you've ever seen in an R-rated film. (Even at their softest and most vulnerable, it seems, the Irish can't help but curse like brigands.) She finds out he can fix her broken vacuum. (It's his day job.) As a result, he eventually finds out she's got a beautiful voice and a workable command of the piano. They begin playing together. At first, she accompanies him on his songs; then she writes her own. Each song is a little autobiography.
He's got a girl in London who cheated on him. She's got a husband in the Czech Republic who never understood or nurtured her talents. Though they rehearse and ultimately record them together, it's clear these are songs about the loves they've had with others.
Her desire for him is especially complex. He is symbolic of the life she's created in London. Her sense of duty toward a husband she's (at best) ambivalent about is a relic of the life she left. Her story isn't ultimately about choosing one or the other, but of straddling worlds. Though taken with the sights, sounds, fashions and opportunities (selling roses on sidewalks; cleaning house) of London, she holds tight to her Czech-ness.
Billed as a modern musical (it's not really), Once does one thing musicals almost never do effectively: convey sincere yet subtle emotion through song. Hansard especially shows so much agony and misplaced hope while singing that tears sprung to my eyes just watching. There's nothing showy, though, about the guy's yearning, and nothing fake about the girl's conflicted emotions. Once is easily the best movie I've seen in 2007. It's probably the most beautiful and guileless film to emerge from a decade overly obsessed with cleverness. (Rated R).