Masking the Movies : THE SWELL SEASON

“How thoughtlessly we dissipate our energies
Perhaps we don’t fulfill each others fantasies
And as we stand upon the ledges of our lives with our respective similarities
It’s either sadness of euphoria”

            – Billy Joel


“You kick your ball and it goes over the back wall, and then over the river, and then over the next town, and into a place you never imagined it would end up,” says Glen Hansard as the film begins. “There’s four-fifths of you going ‘Oh my god! I can’t believe I kicked my ball that far.’ And I guess those four-fifths totally outweigh that little part of you that’s going ‘I want my fucking ball back’”.

For two people who had emerged into the public eye with the bright and dreamlike romance of the movie Once, their second onscreen performance together is a bit of a change in mood. The Swell Season is the true-life document of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova’s time spent on the road promoting their music as a songwriting duo (also named The Swell Season) in the years following their rapid; and almost incidental, rise to fame. Despite the marked differences from their roles in Once, this film serves as a sort of companion piece to that project. Although it may lay in a much more bleak and somber terrain, The Swell Season provides a glimpse in to the couple’s real story of love, loss, success, and reality.

Harkening back to similar documentaries from the past, The Swell Season often feels reminiscent of D.A Pennebaker’s film about Bob Dylan, Don’t Look Back. This is due, in part, to the refreshing choices to film in black and white and to utilize a cinema verite approach to convey the story. What additionally makes this film hold its own in comparisons with such classics as Don’t Look Back is the tactful employment of Glen and Marketa’s music as a sort of emotional backdrop and as a means of using their music and lyrics to reflect the actual drama taking place offstage in the lives of these two musicians. Each song in the movie is delivered with the sort of searing poignancy that makes the lyrics seem like they could have been written specifically for the preceding scene. And with the amount of raw passion that pervades every one of these songs, we feel the drama in every action all the more profoundly. Any other movie would be hard-pressed to try and compile a better soundtrack.

By this same token, it must be said that one of the central points which may draw the most attention from people is that the film is a kind of chronicle of the life and death of Glen and Marketa’s romantic relationship. And to be fair, it’s understandable that people would be interested to see that sort of thing in this movie. After all, the onscreen chemistry between these two was one of the key factors that made Once such a memorable film when it was released. Knowing that this relationship didn’t only exist while the cameras were rolling is particularly fascinating in its way. With that being said, however, this sort of thematic direction might cause many to mistakenly dismiss The Swell Season as merely being a movie about a love affair in the public eye. On the contrary, the film transcends beyond existing as an exploitative view of a relationship and is instead focused on the conflicts that arise when Glen and Marketa’s newfound success begins to sink in and the two start to question their own fame, aspirations, and relationships to their audience and to each other.

Although The Swell Season is considerably detached from what preceded it in Once, Glen and Marketa do possess a number of qualities that existed in their fictional counterparts. Glen comes off as a headstrong and determined musician, having given up school at an early age to pursue his passions. On the other hand, Marketa is considerably more reserved. She takes the role of a quiet, yet resilient force within their band and in their relationship. When the wave of success hits the couple, Marketa seemingly has the most trouble adapting to the rapid shift in attention which has come to focus squarely on them. While Glen naturally takes the role as the dynamic frontman of the group by acting as spokesman and going out to meet fans at their shows, Marketa would rather stay back where she doesn’t need to pose for a constant barrage of photos. And yet, Glen begins to experience his own difficulties when adapting to his new life in the public conscience. Whereas Marketa struggles with the concept of being a “star”, Glen begins to question the significance of his success and becomes skeptical of the new level of expectation that is now placed on the two as performers. While the two have to face their own separate demons, it doesn’t take long before their battles encroach closer to home and their own relationship is called into question. “You wanted this. You can’t say you didn’t want it” says Marketa in one of the films most heartbreaking sequences. Although when she confronts Glen with this statement she is most likely referring to the group’s growing popularity rather than the relationship they share, one gets the feeling she could easily be talking about both.

Upon seeing the film, The Swell Season might come as a bit of a shock; especially to those who had become familiar with the group from their roles in their first movie together. All the color and fantasy of their onscreen romance is effectively stripped away in this piece, and we are left with a much more humanizing picture. And still, I would argue that the two films do share a certain kind of common thread between them. It would be difficult for anyone except the two individuals involved to comment on when and how the love affair they had truly began, but maybe it wouldn’t be too far off to suggest that in these moments spent in the wake of Once, both Glen and Marketa may have unconsciously adopted aspects of their onscreen personas into their real life. Could it have been that they were more in tune with their fictional characters than they might have realized? Maybe what we see during the course of the film is more than a couple breaking up. Maybe what we’re seeing is two people struggling to find themselves again after growing out of the molds placed on them by their imagined characters from the past. By falling out of love, the Glen and Marketa find themselves again and manage to reacquire their friendship. Despite the lost hope of what could have been, one gets the feeling that the duo have gained back much more than they might have lost.

The Swell Season could be looked upon as a polarizing sort of movie. Either people will love it for its honesty and candid nature, or hate it for tearing away the dream that was built with Once. I argue that both of these films work best as counterparts to each other, with The Swell Season acting as a sort of comedown from the blissful rush that emanated from the previous film. As we see in real life, this film shows us both the beauty and the ugliness of such a story. In a way, perhaps that is the more poetic vision of the two movies.

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5