REVIEW: The Swell Season Revisits the Stars of Once and Finds Bittersweet Romance
Once casts a long shadow over the The Swell Season, a black-and-white tour documentary co-directed by Nick August-Perna, Chris Dapkins and Carlo Mirabella-Davis. For one thing the film, which follows musicians-turned-movie stars Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová as they perform under the band name of the title, wouldn't exist if it weren't for Once -- the incredible, unexpected success of the Irish indie romance made celebrities of its leads and netted them an Academy Award for their song "Falling Slowly," one of many we hear them play in the doc. Early on, we're shown Hansard's mother hefting her son's Oscar and speaking of him with pride, musing that if the two musicians were to get married, their children would be able to say "ma and dad have an Oscar each!" Once has allowed the long-struggling Hansard and considerably younger Irglová to become a coveted live act, and it's on tour that The Swell Season catches them, as the first flush of celebration has faded and weariness has begun to set in.
But Once also lingers in another, more complicated way. The beautiful near love story of the film and the real-life romance between Hansard and Irglová allows for a bit of bleed between who they actually are and who they played on-screen, and a clear part of the appeal of seeing them perform, for some audience members, is the way it seems to allow the story of the film to continue -- outside one venue, a boy and girl recall that they wrote the pair's names on their arms and pretended to be them earlier that day. The Swell Season serves that semi-sequel purpose itself, though the arc it provides is far more bittersweet -- between performances and late-night hangouts with friends and crew members, the documentary captures Hansard and Irglová's eventual breakup for reasons entirely in line with the characters they embodied on-screen, as they slowly separate, wanting different things and heading down diverging paths.
Hansard spent a long time trying to make it as a musician before John Carney's film came around, playing, as he explains here, for 17 years to rooms of 40 or so people. He's now gratified and elated to be greeted by huge crowds at each successive venue. Irglová, on the other hand, was only a teenager when Once was shot, and has stepped directly into a world of acclaim and adoration she's unprepared to deal with. The giddy moments of joy showcased in this doc -- the pair running to skinny-dip in the ocean, gathering to drink and sing traditional songs over the course of a night out, Irglová cutting Hansard's hair as he sighs, "It's a great life we have, isn't it?" -- contrast with the exhaustion Irglová in particular begins to broadcast. "I just don't know if I can justify it anymore," she says of taking pictures with the fans who gather by their dressing room after shows. " I don't understand it." The tiring aspects of being constantly on the move, of being "on," of getting treated like a celebrity or a character in a movie ("I hope you guys make it to the end of time" gushes a fan) start to take their toll on both subjects, who come across as grounded, introspective people who like to perform but don't feed off of public adoration.
The connection between Hansard and Irglová is the heart of The Swell Season, and it's one that could use more back story. Hansard, in one of the interviews dotted through the film, intriguingly notes that he's known Irglová and her family since she was 13 (she would sing harmony with him when he played) but doesn't go into the details of how or what the response was to their getting together. Irglová suggested that she simply got old enough to be able to date him, and their relationship does seem as much one of mentoring as of romance -- she adopted a lot of his opinions, she points out, something that she's no longer as willing to do. The split, heartbreaking as it is, happens over an understated argument that clearly lays out the growing divide between the two in years and in desires, while always conveying understanding and fondness. Introducing a song later, Irglová says it's about how sometimes people grow apart, but that "you come to an understanding that there is a love you share that is bigger than all those things, and it's not necessarily going to work out in this lifetime but maybe in the next one, because the connection is strong enough." It's an eloquent summation of the complexities and strength of their bond, and a poetic cap to the pair's fictional and real ups and downs over two films.
The Swell Season opens Friday in Los Angeles and Oct. 21 in New York, with additional dates and locations to follow.