SilverDocs kicked off last night with The Swell Season, which follows Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová as they tour the world on the heels of their Academy Award success. Known for their no-budget musical Once, Glen and Mar (what friends call her) co-wrote songs like “Lies” and “Falling Slowly.” Directors Nick August-Perna, Chris Dapkins, and Carlo Mirabella-Davis use stunning black and white cinematography to portray the real-life couple with tenderness and moments of quiet joy.
I first heard about Once from a friend who loves The Frames. She treated the band like a well-guarded secret, so I felt privileged when she asked me to join her at E Street. Midway into the movie, I could see why talked about the band this way. Through gritted teeth and closed eyes, Glen is a passionate performer who gives the impression his heart breaks as he sings; in other words, it will never be cool to love a musician like him. The directors bring the same kind of careful observation to The Swell Season.
My favorite scenes are when Glen writes and rehearses. There’s a great early scene where he and Mar practice a song by the piano and he patiently tells her every chord change. Later in the film, Glen writes a song in an empty dining room and his facial contortions express his passion for the process. Even without the success of Once and The Swell Season, there is little doubt Glen would be strumming away at his weathered guitar.
Markéta, on the other hand, still needs time to come into her own. She’s still a teenager when she tours with Glen (in the post-screening interview, the directors say they followed the pair for almost three years). She shares a deep connection with Glen, and despite their affection, they cannot be together due to the disparate trajectory of their lives. The directors never pinpoint a precise moment where the break-up occurs. Instead, we watch irreconcilable disagreements lead to frustration and even anger. They eventually split, but the exquisite framing of the final shot suggests Glen and Mar are in a better place, one where a bond of creativity and shared history define their lives.
The performances and deliberate pace wouldn’t work without the black and white camerawork. Using a combination of modern and classic equipment, the light and shadow seem to effortlessly match the tone of the music. During the more confessional scenes (such as Glen’s discussion of his father), the absence of color allows us to focus on their delicately expressive faces. This documentary isn’t just for fans of Once. Glen and Mar perform with measured power, and their scenes together are unmistakably raw. Based on the strength of the opening film, I’m certain this year’s SilverDocs will be one to remember.