'The Swell Season' Captures the End of a Romance That Started On-Screen

Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová fell in love filming the Oscar-winning Once, and fell out of it in front of the cameras for the new documentary The Swell Season

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Elkcreek Cinema

The small Irish musical Once was one of the most unlikely cinematic success stories in recent memory. Real life musicians and collaborators Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová played versions of themselves, meeting and falling in love on the Dublin streets on which they actually did meet and, it later turned out, fell in love.

Now in theaters, the documentary The Swell Season is that film's self-reflexive unofficial sequel, a real-life chronicle of the development and fracturing of the duo's off-screen romance. It's set against the backdrop of their triumphant tour of the United States and abroad after their tune " Falling Slowly" won the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 2007.

Captured with a vérité approach in evocative black and white, the film shows how the burden of sudden fame corroded a romantic relationship—one that had already been tinged by the inflated expectations of fiction.

The film originally wasn't envisioned that way, though. While taking a class at the New York Film Academy, Hansard invited his teacher, filmmaker Carlo Mirabella-Davis, to chronicle the band's life on the road.

"[Hansard] mentioned that they were about to embark on this massive world tour," says Mirabella-Davis. "And he expressed some reservations, some anxieties about his life changing overnight, and being thrust into the limelight, suddenly being scrutinized. It was kind of an environment that he had never been [in] before."

Mirabella-Davis, with fellow filmmakers Nick August-Perna and Chris Dapkins, was intrigued by the notion that "achievement in and of itself, or notoriety or fame, doesn't necessarily bring us the solace or the enlightenment that I think we all hope that it will," he says.

From that initial jumping-off point, the film transformed into a three-year journey in which the directors followed the duo on tour and home to Ireland and the Czech Republic. The documentary became an increasingly personalized enterprise, as the subjects grew better acquainted with the filmmakers and more willing to open up in front of the camera.

"We spent about two weeks at Glen's house. … He was working on some songs and he was alone," August-Perna says.* "I think that was the point where we became very close with him and his family and I think we managed to get past the initial boundaries that are normal between a three-person camera crew and a subject. There was a lot more trust during that time period. The conversations became more intimate."

A few of those raw, unfiltered conversations serve as centerpieces here. The filmmakers' fly-on-the-wall approach pays off as Hansard and his mom debate the significance of his Oscar win, and as themes of familial legacy and responsibility emerge when the musician's alcoholic ex-boxer father speaks about the dreams he's vicariously experienced through his son.

On tour, there are subtle (and not-so-subtle) indicators of mounting tension between Hansard—who's grateful for finally garnering attention and achieving success in his late 30s, while remaining a bit wary of it all—and the much-younger Irglová, who has quickly tired of the frenzy. Their personal paths finally diverge at a Czech café, during a conversation that's at once intimate and universal, an extraordinary final rupturing tinged with sadness and regret. It will be recognized by anyone who's gone through a difficult personal separation. It's also an ideal encapsulation of the ways the film serves as a sort of flipside counterpart to the optimism espoused by Once.

"We definitely thought about Once a lot when we were making the movie, in terms of how we decided to shoot the film," Mirabella-Davis says. "Once was a fiction film, but it had a documentary aesthetic. Because ours is a documentary we wanted to give it a little bit more of a fiction feeling."

Yes, it's possible to appreciate The Swell Season without having seen Once. The film offers a compelling introduction to the duo and their music, a timeless visual sensibility, an engaging impressionistic structure, and a wealth of elemental, deep-rooted emotion. The filmmakers smartly integrate the band's songs into the narrative, so that hits such as "Falling Slowly" comment on the proceedings.

Throughout the film, Hansard and Irglová struggle with the age-old question for any artist who's achieved a major success: What next? Some answers: The Swell Season endures as a professional collaboration. Irglová, now married, has released Anar, her first solo album. Once has become a musical, set to premiere Off-Broadway at the New York Theater Workshop next month.

Still, no matter how far afield their careers might take them, both artists will be forever defined by the small movie that catapulted them to Oscar-winning prominence. It's tricky terrain, being the person you've always been and becoming the artist you've always wanted to be while managing the enormous, outsized expectations spurred by this sort of instant, almost-mythic success. At the end of the day, The Swell Season is a film about that struggle at its earliest, rawest stage.

"It is almost a dystopian sequel to [Once]," Dapkins says of the documentary. "I think that's not a random occurrence. It's what they're struggling with fundamentally in this journey. They're struggling with this parallel existence that they're leading—the day-to-day, backstage, catering food, sleeping in these mundane hotels. And [there is] this other existence, which is created through a myth that captures the imagination and hearts of people all over the world. They're navigating that double life. This film is fundamentally about that friction."

* This quote was originally attributed to Dapkins. We regret the error.