Review: ‘The Swell Season’

Nov. 25, 2011, 12:58 a.m.
Review: 'The Swell Season'
Courtesy of San Francisco Film Society

It is not often that a movie presents a love story that audiences identify with. Most, of course, are the stuff of idealism. However, “The Swell Season” describes a painfully honest love story set in an extraordinary musical context.


Directed by Nick August-Perna, Chris Dapkins and Carlo Mirabella-Davis, it documents the journey of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, two European indie musicians who fell in and out of love during their rise to fame after the release of their Oscar-winning film “Once.” Vigorous musical pieces are enmeshed among delicate conversations and chilly interviews.


The two began as lovers, both to each other and the purity of music. But popularity, perhaps, caused them more pain than joy, leaving the two scrambling to understand why their love could not proceed with the same success as their music careers.


The documentary’s simple black and white cinematography enhances the film’s deep inquiry into the complexities of a musical and romantic relationship. Color would have cluttered it, unnecessarily ornamenting a raw story that is best told through words and lyrics. The lack of the filmmaker’s presence makes it so that nothing stands between the viewer and the couple, so much so that at times, it feels like intruding on private moments between Irglova and Hansard. The opening scene shows Irglova giving Hansard a haircut in a hotel room, a scene so intimate that it was almost uncomfortable to watch. A scene much later in the movie depicts a similarly personal scene: a fragile, unresolved argument in a cafe that recalls the first signs of rupture for anyone who has felt the fracture of love.


There are lighthearted moments, too: clips of Hansard and Irglova sprinting naked into the ocean, the band crew drinking while singing Irish folk songs, Hansard’s mother excitedly dressing the Oscar trophy in a knit cap. However, these only serve to enhance moments of frustration: Hansard conflicted by the emphasis and pride his alcoholic father places on his success, Irglova’s palpable discomfort when she is accosted by fans with camera phones, the both of them questioning if sold-out shows and autographing posters really matter at all.


Hansard’s and Irglova’s story is eerily similar to the fictional story that they acted out in “Once.”  A couple tries to justify their romantic relationship with the music they created together, until they realize that their individual aspirations cannot sustain both a career and relationship. Like it or not, we are all humans subject to circumstance, and “The Swell Season” is a testament to the fact that even beautiful things can come out of our greatest failures. Perhaps Irglova’s words put it best: “You come to an understanding that there is a love you share that is bigger than all those things, and that maybe it isn’t going to work out in this lifetime, but maybe in the next one.”

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