observations and opinion
The Irish film “Once”, made for pennies in 2006 and ultimately winner of an Oscar for Best Song, has two main characters: the Guy and the Girl. It traces, in unkempt fashion, a classic tale: Guy meets Girl in Dublin, Girl helps Guy with his music, Guy falls for Girl, Girl falls for Guy, but then Girl asks her estranged husband to come over from the Czech Republic. Guy moves to London to re-join his estranged girlfriend. The end.
You’ve seen it a thousand times, right? Clearly not, and it is the incompleteness and realism of the denouement in “Once” (together with so many of its other charms) that lifts “Once” up from the standard rhyming couplet love story. It’s more of a haiku, and it’s very hard to reach a happy ending in seventeen syllables.
Then again, that depends on your definition of a happy ending. Which is where “Once” really departs down a dark Dublin alley, to a corner of life which we often visit but seldom post a sign on. It is the place where we use people up, and then move on.
At the outset of “Once” the Guy (Glen Hansard) seems a hopeless wreck, literally bashing his guitar strings in agony over his unfaithful girlfriend. Coins drop in his guitar case as he wails, blindly, to a city that can’t seem to hear him. But someone does: the Girl. She walks up, wants to know his story and in minutes has arranged for him to fix her Hoover (that’s not a metaphor, the guy repairs vacuums. Well, okay, it’s a metaphor but not the one you’re thinking). The Girl is, in many ways, “an arranger” – she improves his lyrics, adds harmonies, gets him a bank loan, haggles to rent a recording studio and in what seems like a few days, pulls the Guy off the curb and plants him on his feet. He repairs her Hoover, she repairs his life.
The Guy, being essentially a large glass of warm romantic beer, falls for her. In truth, only stones could resist her. As played by Markéta Irglova (when she was 18), the Girl emanates a kind of constant integrity and ingenuity: she has a child and a mother to tend to, a faraway husband who doesn’t love her and a lot of odd jobs to pay the bills. But when she sees the Guy, it sparks the artist in her again. It sparks more than that. And it is her chance to transcend the dreariness of her life, momentarily and as it turns out, in a lasting way.
There are at least two pivotal songs in the film – one “his” and one “hers”. His song is “Falling Slowly” (the Oscar winner) and it brings the two together. When the Guy sings “take this sinking boat and point it home, we’ve still got time” it is a magic scene:
You have suffered enough
And warred with yourself
It’s time that you won
Take this sinking boat and point it home
We’ve still got time
Raise your hopeful voice you have a choice
Much later, after she has rescued the Guy, the Girl sings her own song: “The Hill” which, while written about her husband, foreshadows how it will end with the Guy:
Looking at you sleeping, I’m with the man I know.
And I’m sitting here weeping while the hours pass so slow.
And I know that in the morning I have to let you go.
And you’ll be just a man once I used to know,
Here, the Guy seems to see her. He knows he is in the presence of greatness. She weeps, for the loss she has suffered and the loss to come. It is the only moment in the story when they embrace.
While events build up to the recording session, what the story is about – I think – is the Girl’s decision about the Guy. She obviously loves him (she tells him that, in Czech, which he doesn’t understand). A romantic viewer (that’s me) keeps urging her: don’t give up, take a chance, take this sinking boat and point it home! Yet in the end, she pushes him away. Why?
Well, on a practical level, the Guy is still a pretty big risk – he doesn’t seem to be able to tie his own shoe laces together. Cute or not (a matter of opinion), the Guy is a train wreck. She pulls him together and re-launches his boat, but you can’t blame her for not climbing on board.
But there is something more to her choice than that. Part of it, I expect, is that she doesn’t trust his love. Because he has a girlfriend somewhere? Maybe. In truth, he does almost nothing for her in return – he won’t even let her ride his dad’s motorcycle. It’s not that their connection isn’t rewarding to her, it’s just that she can hardly be certain of such a man’s constancy. Who will he fall for next? Who is he there for? Those are all reasonable doubts. But more likely,she holds back because she knows what he is doing, even when he does not: the Guy is using her to save himself.
The Girl knows “Falling Slowly” wasn’t written for her. It wasn’t written for the Guy’s missing girlfriend in London, either. “Falling Slowly” – an intensely romantic and genuine love song – is the Guy singing to himself. He is a lost soul, bobbing on the sea, when we first meet him. Yet he is full of fire and talent, whirling inside him recklessly. He is falling slowly and needs to grab on tight. He is trying to save himself, from himself. And he does, by finding her.
We form relationships that very often are part of how we restore and remake ourselves. That may sound utilitarian, even manipulative, but it is not – we should be here for each other, we should be “of use.” And so we are: we use other people as sharp objects, to chip away the stone around us and find the figure within. We use each other as bridges, as lifelines, as lamps in the dark. People are blankets to warm and soften the bitterly cold hours. And hopefully, someone can find something in us – some quality, energy or strength that makes their life better. Not just ours.
The Guy, sweet and hapless and guileless as he is, is hazardous. She had her heart broken once before, and she won’t let it happen again. Certainly not by this Guy. He may be smitten with her, but he’s so self-absorbed that when she tells him outright “it’s you that I love” (in Czech) he looks puzzled but doesn’t really probe. What did you say? What was that? She puts it right out there in the cool, crisp Irish air – all he has to do is reach out and take it. But he won’t, or can’t. She didn’t make it easy and he didn’t make the effort.
And it is in that moment, where this sweet story vaults into a kind of quiet tragedy: she is there for him, and he is there for him too. And later, when he asks her to come with him to London, and to bring the baby, she says: “Can I bring my mother?” And he smiles silently, because that’s not what he wants. And it is what he wants, not what she wants, that matters to the Guy.
He used her as a compass to point his ship home, and she was left with the memory of a man she used to know. She loves the Guy but doesn’t trust that love (hers for him? his for her?) so the Guy doesn’t get to break her heart – she breaks it herself. To protect herself from loving him – to protect herself from herself – she brings back her husband. This re-establishes their family but it does something more: the Girl uses the husband – who doesn’t love her – to restrain her from chasing the Guy. Like Odysseus lashing himself to the mast of his ship to resist the Sirens’ cry, the Girl knows her weakness and so guards against it the best way she can. With chains.
It is the Greek tragedy of a Czech girl in Ireland.
Tragic, but not a mistake. Because the Guy, talented and affable, isn’t good enough for her. When she says “it is you who I love” in Czech, he is too self-absorbed to ask her – to insist upon knowing – what did you say? The most important sentence ever uttered to him and he doesn’t listen. He lets it slide, because he has himself to think about. She gets his record made, he books his flight to London. He is not there for her and he is not staying for her. And that is why he is the wrong guy. Because the right guy listens. And to listen, you must be still. To be still, you must stay. You have to feel the weight of someone else’s words and know, they are more important than your own words. Even when those words hurt.
But he didn’t listen and he didn’t stay. He bought his one way ticket from Dublin to London. So she promised to see him and didn’t show. He was heartbroken, but not heartbroken enough. She had to be heartbroken for the two of them. The Girl gave the Guy his life. The Guy took it. He may be sweet, shambling and talented, but the breeze can turn him. Look how easy it was for the Girl to do it.
Did he love her? In his fashion, and his fashion was to be loved and not really give it. Isn’t it a pity, George Harrison sang, how we take each other’s love, without giving any back? Yes it is.
Once, when asked why someone was important to me, I answered without hesitating: “I found myself in her light.”
I found myself in her light. True, but that was only half of it. The other half was – the better half, the part that made it real – was that I wanted to be a light unto her. I wanted her to never be in the dark. You see, it is good to take your boat home in the moonlight. But it is another to be the morning sun.
And to be that, you stay in Dublin.
Note to readers: David Hunter, currently starring in the role of The Guy in the London production of “Once the Musical” seems to be okay with this article. Doesn’t mean he agrees with it, of course…