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Sunday
Jun262011

"Once" and "Away From Her" 

These two films were like small miracles to me.   Essential viewing, both of them.

“Once”
We meet “the guy” (Glen Hansard) strumming his axe and singing his heart out in front of the chi-chi storefronts of modern Dublin.   He’s an undiscovered singer-songwriter burning with talent, though not as young as he used to be, with a good heart (albeit a broken one).   “The girl” (Markéta Irglová) emerges from the passersby; she’s a classically-trained pianist, a young immigrant from the Czech Republic.   Each is at a crossroads: he’s leaving for London with a demo tape as his calling card which he’s recruiting musicians to play on; she’s left a husband back home and come to a new land with her mother and her little girl.  

“Once” is a showcase for the music of real-life collaborators Hansard and Irglová.   I’m a sucker for the voices of men and women singing together, the powerhouse roar of Hansard intertwining with the quavering vulnerability of Irglová.   There’s an urgency in the performances, as if through the force of their singing they might exorcize the pain.   I loved watching them watching each other when they play together for the first time in a music store where the proprietor allows the girl to practice her Mendelssohn on a display piano.   On their faces we see surprise and joy, a decision to risk baring the pain, trust in the other not to be careless with what’s been entrusted, a returned gaze as if to say, your risk is respected, and thank you—you honor me.   At times the raw emotion of the music they make together threatens to shake the film off its sprockets.  

Hansard, Irglová and director John Carney have made one of the great music films.   In a pub everyone around the table sings a song, and we get a sense for how, in Irish culture, music and food bonds community, family, generations.   Since seeing it, the faces and the songs in “Once” have never been far from my thoughts.

“Away From Her”

“I never wanted to be away from her—she had the spark of life”.   Spoken by a retired professor over a shot of a lovely young woman—his wife 40 years ago—these words begin this film about a couple coping with the onset of the wife’s Alzheimer’s.   After she begins to wander, they make the agonizing decision to ensconce her in a facility, though the professor assures the staff that his wife won’t be there for long: she’s far too young, too intellectually lively.   “I think I may be beginning to disappear”, she tells him rather offhandedly.    

This is the second profound film about aging I’ve seen this year; “Venus” was the other, and like that film “Away From Her” stars an iconic face of 1960s cinema.   Julie Christie is pitch-perfect as the wife, but Gordon Pinsent is equally good as the flawed, philandering husband who loves her endlessly.   Based on an Alice Munro short story (“The Bear Came Over the Mountain”), “Away From Her” is a deeply knowing film about love and memory, directed with austerity and quiet poetry by young Sarah Polley.

 

- Jul 6, 2007

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