At the World Cinema Showcase, the receding tide of Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová’s musical romance.
A deeply intimate experience, Nick August-Perna, Chris Dapkins, and Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s The Swell Season is documentary filmmaking that delivers cohesive interpersonal drama without sacrificing its sense of cinematic artistry. This fly-on-the-wall trio have been afforded an, at times, uncomfortable level of openness which serves to both lift the emotional stakes of the film and attests to the level of trust they were able to build, and maintain, with their new-to-celebrity subjects.
The primary audience for The Swell Season—fans of John Carney’s affecting 2006 ‘new musical’ Once, as well as followers of the resulting musical collaboration between that film’s stars, the eponymous Swell Season—will be at least partially versed in the events unfolding in this surprisingly cinematic music documentary from the first-time filmmakers. Following the success of Carney’s feature film (notably including an Oscar a piece for Best Original song in 2007 for the track ‘Falling Slowly’), the bittersweet, unresolved romance within was breathed into off-screen life as Once stars Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová became an indie ‘fairytale’ couple and a real-life musical duo. Successfully petitioning for permission to film the pair and their band from their first tour in 2007, over the intervening years our directing trio unwittingly document a slow and sad splintering as age differences, sudden celebrity, and deeply felt ‘public’ expectation collide.
In some ways this film reminds of Ondi Timoner’s excellently fractious DiG! (2004)—only with much more mild mannered antagonists. Hansard and Irglová prove candid subjects who allow the camera to capture their relationship woes coming to a head but, despite the obvious frustrations and hurts, remain noticeably polite to each other and those around them. It is a credit to Hansard and his family that they also consented to recording a range of family drama which enriches the film’s content as well as deepening our sketch of Glen Hansard the person.
The filmmakers comment that as Once was a “fiction film leaning towards
documentary” that they wanted The Swell Season to mirror that aesthetic by allowing narrative cinema to inform their shooting and editing style. This can be seen in a decision to shoot in black and white and in various shot setups—for instance, fixed framing (unusual for documentaries, where the action/frame is generally not storyboarded or set so the camera is free to move where needs dictate) plus occasional, arresting manipulation of focus and depth of field. These results are achieved by a filmmaking trio who share directorial credits and divvy the major production roles between themselves: Mirabella-Davis producing, Dapkins shooting, and August-Perna looking after the edit.
Staying true to their subjects, and to the film which launched them into the public eye, the directors keep music front and centre and include regular footage from gigs as well as footage from frequent, less formal, sing-a-longs that crop up throughout the band’s touring. Irish proclivity for story and song shines through as we are treated to candid food-with-creative-sharing moments not unlike the céilí scene in Once. And I think this musical bent, as much as the recognisable relationship drama viewed through the prism of celebrity, will mean The Swell Season will hold appeal to many who have not been privy to Glen and Markéta’s story thus far.