It was the sleeper hit of 2007. The little movie that could. The ultra-low budget verite romance about a busker and an immigrant falling in love and making sweet music together. It was shot on the streets of Dublin for $120k and made $9.7 million worldwide, got into every film critic’s Top Ten list, wowed them at Sundance, and pocketed an Oscar for Best Song. Everything about this movie screams massive success. So why do so many people come away from it feeling so frustrated?
[This article discusses the ending of the movie. If you haven’t watched it and don’t want it spoiled, it’s time to stop reading. Come back when you’ve seen it.]
I tried to see Onceat the Edinburgh Film Festival last year, but only just missed out on its screening. Everyone was talking about it, though. I then went and missed it at the cinema too. Maybe I blinked. It came and went at my local multiplex with the unseemly haste of an absolute stinker, which took me by surprise. I’d never seen a bad review of it, but it looked like it had been pulled because no one was bothering to turn up for it in its first week. What was going on?
It may seem churlish to pick fault with a movie that has made such a massive profit, but when you look at its placing in the worldwide box office and compare it to the movies around it, you start to wonder why it did so badly.
This doesn’t make sense. We’re talking about the feelgood film of the year. Just look at the trailer:
How could you not be beguiled by that?
Well, perhaps the answer is in how the film ends. And here’s the big spoiler: they don’t get together in the end.
Say what? Are you fucking kidding me?
Yep. Straight up. Even though the script has gone to great pains to set up how inappropriate their other options are for them (he’s still hurting from his ex who went and ‘screwed some other guy’ and she has a husband back home who is too old and has no emotional connection with her), even though she actually tells him ‘I love you’ at one point (in Czech, untranslated and not subtitled), even though we know deep down that these two people, despite their own fears, are perfect for each other… it ends with her husband coming over to live with her, and our wussbag hero buying her the piano she longs for with all his money as he fucks off to London with a smug smile on his fizzog to go and get that old girlfriend back.
Glen Hansard is on record as saying he wouldn’t have spent so much time promoting the movie if they’d had a happy ending forced on them (see good old Wikipedia), and it’s a view supported by the movie critics and a vocal minority of fans. But this is just cutting off box office nose to spite Hollywood face. It’s what every arthouse film bore bleats about all the time: happy endings aren’t real life; they are just Hollywood bullshit.
Apparently, in the real world, people don’t fall in love and make a commitment to be together even though it flies in the face of all their other irritating responsibilities. It just never happens!
The fact is, you can’t set up a love story like that and then deny the audience the ending you’ve set up for them because you have some ridiculously misguided notion about what doesn’t happen in the real world (actually , you can, and you can even get an Oscar for it, but audiences aren’t fooled by that shit).
What’s happening here is genre betrayal: starting to tell one kind of story, then screwing the audience over with a resolution that bears no relation to it. It’s nothing to do with real life. It’s just bad storytelling.
Onceis a love story till right at the end, when it mugs us with an outbreak of common sense that betrays everything we’ve felt about these characters. And it’s pretty clear that word of mouth got round that the ‘feelgood hit of the year’ may have made movie critics feel good about themselves but wasn’t so feelgood for the rest of us.
The only reason I feel angry about it is because Once is a good film. I like the two central characters; I love how they can only reveal their true feelings through the songs they sing together; I love the raw power of those songs (the first time they sing Falling Slowly together and the recording of When Your Mind’s Made Upare absolutely electric moments); I love them so much I feel betrayed by the totally false resolution imposed on them.
It’s not big and it’s not clever. And, for once, I’m actually welcoming the Hollywood remake.