The Swell Season: Film Review

Sensitive doc manages to show "Once" duo as both blissed-out lovers and post-romance partners without overdramatizing the transition,

Documentary does right by fans of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, whose success has outlasted their relationship.

NEW YORK — Tenderly dismantling the romantic mythology surrounding 2006's indie smash Once, The Swell Season chronicles the surprise musical success of that movie's stars Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová and presents a couple that, however deep their bonds, can't live a storybook life for long. An easy sell with viewers who fell for the original film (and the albums it spawned), the doc by Nick August-Perna, Chris Dapkins and Carlo Mirabella-Davis does right by both fans and subjects and could make a profitable arthouse run.

Fans will know in advance that Hansard and Irglová, still partnered in music, didn't survive as a couple. But the film begins with them very much in love -- her giving him a haircut in a modest room while he marvels, "It's a great life we have, isn't it?" We soon watch the pair at the seaside, running naked into the surf like kids getting away with something.

But from the start, the filmmakers offer Q&A sessions with each singer individually. Though at first we're hearing childhood anecdotes and musings on fame (success came overnight in her case but was hard-earned in his), the solo interviews set the stage psychologically for the breakup to come.

The two spend a satisfying chunk of time recalling the musical spark that led to the Oscar-winning song "Falling Slowly" and resulting success with descriptions of that chemistry are borne out with present-day tour footage. Too successful, in one respect: The youthful vulnerability that makes Irglová so endearing behind a microphone hobbles her at the backstage door, where she can't get comfortable taking photos with fans. Hansard, who gladly accepts any interaction with his new admirers, tires of his partner's reluctance.

Hansard, in turn, suffers more philosophical difficulties with fame — a "what's it worth?" ennui that not only creates friction with his partner but makes for poignant dinner-table scenes with the family he clearly adores. His working-class mother can't stop talking about being the only woman in town whose son has an Oscar, and instead of accepting the pleasure he has given her, Hansard frets over this abstraction of achievement.

If the handsome black-and-white film sensitively captures frictions between characters who continue to love and respect each other, it isn't obsessed with this discomfort zone. The filmmakers are happy for diversions, like a tour-bus dance party and a post-gig song-swapping session where the group's Irish crew go ballad-for-ballad with the stars.

Performance footage may be briefer than some in the audience expect, but what there is is choice, capturing the contrasting kinds of vulnerability -- hers shy but gutsy, his eloquently raw -- that make the pair distinctive. A closing image, with Hansard in the spotlight while Irglová watches contently, can be read as either a newfound equilibrium or a suggestion that the duo will eventually follow different musical paths. Either way, Swell Season makes a bruised-but-sweet flip side to Once's dreamy love song.

Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Viewpoints)
Production Company: Elkcreek Cinema
Directors-screenwriters: Nick August-Perna, Chris Dapkins, Carlo Mirabella-Davis
Producer: Carlo Mirabella-Davis
Director of photography: Chris Dapkins
Editor: Nick August-Perna
Sales: Demetri Makoulis, Elephant Eye Films
No rating, 89 minutes