The Swell Season

Ten years ago if I told you about The Frames, the Irish band who was one of my favorites of the time, you most likely wouldn’t know what I was talking about despite the band being seen in their homeland as the greatest thing since U2. Nowadays, chances are The Frames still don’t mean a thing to you, but you know who Glen Hansard, their lead singer and principal songwriter, is: the bloke who won an Academy Award for “Falling Slowly” from the film Once, in which he starred with his fellow Oscar-winner and partner in The Swell Season, Markéta Irglová. (Admittedly, I suppose some may have remembered Hansard for his supporting role in The Commitments.)

The Swell Season, a documentary directed and shot by Nick August-Perna, Chris Dapkins and Carlo Mirabella-Davis and recently released on DVD, follows Hansard and Irglova, whose musical collaboration dates back before the filming of Once, for two years after they win the Oscar. The film’s timing couldn’t be better as not only has The Swell Season’s popularity ballooned, but in a reflection of Once’s storyline, the duo had become romantically involved. As such, not only are we privy to the couple having to deal with the pressures that success brings and the grind of a lengthy world tour, but also struggling to make their storybook romance work amongst this maelstrom.

One can’t help but subconsciously view Once as the backstory to Hansard and Irglová’s relationship, especially with The Swell Season not providing enough background information (one of the doc’s few flaws) to replace it. As is made apparent by the reactions of fans meeting the band after a performance, this is part of The Swell Season’s appeal as well, and one can’t help but hope that the couple will ride off into the sunset together to live happily ever after.

Unfortunately, it is not to be. Through the film’s fly-on-the-wall perspective, we see the cracks in the relationship forming. As Hansard and Irglová each individually struggle with the expectations and perceptions that come with fame, neither seems sympathetic to the other. With Hansard having the benefit of performing for crowds since he was 14, we mostly see Irglová dealing with not wanting to have her photograph taken or be treated like a celebrity. However, these tensions culminate in a scene at a Czech cafe where Markéta calls Glen on his bullshit when he is complaining about being best known for winning an Oscar. It is soon after that they break up. Thankfully, it doesn’t mean the end of their musical collaboration. (The Swell Season released a full-length, Strict Joy, in 2009 and reportedly have another album on the way.) In fact, Glen says at one point that they are closer than ever. Surely for those emotionally invested in the couple’s happiness, this isn’t necessarily the ending wanted. However, The Swell Season acutely shows that this isn’t a failed love story, but rather a story of two people who successfully did find love, even if it wasn’t mean to be. In that sense, there is something very real about the film that is just as powerful as its fictional counterpart.
Stephen Slaybaugh