Women & Romcoms : Once (2007)
Updated: May 8, 2022
A busker and a Czech immigrant find themselves brought together by their common love of music. Once is the first film of John Carney who has since then directed Begin Again and Sing Street - all musical dramas. Once is not technically a comedy but a romance drama. Although, I think it is a very beautiful film that deserves to be discussed - especially given the treatment of romance. The film begins with Guy, the busker, singing about his ex-girlfriend on the streets of Dublin. A young woman is taken by his songs. She comes back the next day. Despite his attempts to get rid of her, she gets him to repair her hoover. It is quite a surreal situation. The audience understands that these two are going to be the protagonists of the film although they are probably wondering how it is going to end up being a romance. The film is shot mainly in natural light and most of the outside scenes are hand-held. It gives Once a documentary feeling as if Carney was recording the birth of this relationship instead of staging it. Guy does not want this girl around but at the same time he can not walk away. This relationship starts on the premises that he is still in love with his ex-girlfriend and still mourning the loss of that relationship while she has a child and a husband who is still living in the Czech Republic. Said like that, it does not look like romance has any space to bloom between these two unavailable characters. Of course, it does not stop John Croney to explore the feeling of romance and the variations that can be found in love. Not all stories become with love at first sight.
Having an immigrant as a lead in a romance film set in 2006 is something I have not seen very often. The last time I saw it was in Last Christmas (2019) where the main character Katrina comes from Yugoslavia but is played by Emilia Clarke. Markéta Irglova who plays Girl, the female lead in Once, is a Czech musician and songwriter which brings to the film authenticity that could not have been possible otherwise. It is far away from the glamour of typical romances. It takes a stand by showing the struggles, the reality of people not usually seen on screens. She is not glamourous, she is not extremely feminine. She has a complicated life, responsibilities, a child. How many times have we seen a "single" mother as the love interest ? From the moment they meet, they are then shown together which makes it the story of the couple and not Guy's story. She represents the raw reality he has no conscience of. Being myself an immigrant in France and in the UK, I appreciate that he depicts one of the main realities of being an immigrant without being stereotypical. Over the course of their encounters, some tenderness develops and Guy starts falling for her before he realises it. It culminates in the forest he takes her on his dad's bike where he asks her if she still loves her husband and she answers "I love you" in Czech. He did not know what she said. She does not translate her words to him. Their feelings for each other are visible in their looks, in the subtlety of their gestures although no obvious move is made until Guy asks her to leave with him for London. At that point, their time is limited. They have two days left. He learns that her husband will join her in Dublin to try to work things out. It is pretty much clear from that point that these relationship will never be anything else but an unfulfilled potential love story, a chance not taken.
Why is it still a romance then ? Once depicts the passing relationships, the ones that are not meant to last, the ones that we choose not to pursue. There are so many relationships someone can go through that are different from "The One". It is a bittersweet romance that never really began because Once reminds us of one thing : love is also a choice and one can decide to go for it or not. The characters have decided to take a different turn and prioritize something else. It can be uncomfortable and confusing to see a romance not end with a happy end but it is important to depict all the shades contained in romance and love.