Tribeca 2011: THE SWELL SEASON Review


Overall, I must say that I was struck by the similarity of The Swell Season to Hobo with a Shotgun. 


Well, wait, hold on a sec and I'll explain:  both films know what their target audiences expect as they enter the theater, and then do their best to make sure that they leave with their needs met. It's that simple.  


And in this case, the "best" of writing-directing team Nick August-Perna, Chris Dapkins, and Carlo Mirabella-Davis is very good indeed. 


After all, what's the most you could hope for in a doc that chronicles the artistic collaboration, public romance, and slow-dissolve breakup of Oscar-winners Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová? Would it be a bracingly personal, smart, and bittersweet (but not cloying) film with impassioned musical performances thrown in every few minutes? If so, get thee to Tribeca, because your hopes have just become reality. 


With its standard formula of front-seat vantage point and backstage access, the pop music doc is arguably the most enduring and popular brand of documentary, especially for those audiences that don't normally flock to the genre. So since there would seem to be little new territory to explore here, and since the bar is not always set too high--the fanbase for any particular artist can go home happy as long as there's solid on-stage footage--filmmakers who wish to distinguish themselves in this context would appear to be facing quite a challenge.


But just as Once seemed to invent its own grownup language to reinvigorate the movie musical, The Swell Season shakes up the pop music doc in a way that suggests new possibilities for the form. Its beautiful black-and-white cinematography (the shots of Ireland are often breathtaking) and terrific editing go a long way toward explaining why The Swell Season works, but one can't help but suspect that it's the off-camera relationships that were the special ingredient. And "relationships" in this case doesn't refer to those between Hansard, Irglová, and their bandmates, but rather between the entire group of musicians and the filmmakers themselves. Over time a deep sense of trust apparently developed so that subjects became less guarded, and the ensuing spirit of direct and disarming honesty is compounded by the innately down-to-earth personalities of the performers.  


At first the candid interludes that are captured as a result can come across as something other than the product of trust--maybe naïveté or even exploitation, or a combination of the two. For example, an early scene of Hansard and Irglová skinny-dipping seems too awkwardly intimate: we're not sure why the filmmakers, and thus ourselves, are privileged with this (literally revealing) glimpse into the private lives of others. It seems that The Swell Season hasn't yet earned this moment. 


However, as the film progresses it earns it again and again. The portrait we get of Hansard's family in particular is unforgettable--his Mom effusive about her son receiving an Oscar from no less a figure than John Travolta while his Dad determinedly drinks himself into the grave. Interesting, we see Irglová's acceptance speech only via a small TV screen, and it's her upbeat--to many, inspiring--words that echo dimly, sadly, and ironically throughout the rest of the film. Sure, we can have anything we want... but at what price? 


That The Swell Season manages to avoid falling into an abyss of showbiz clichés--fame ain't what it's cracked up to be, doncha know?--is a testament to how it keeps its focus on the specific flesh-and-blood people involved rather than treating them like generic celebrities. In this way, Irglová's growing unease with notoriety doesn't serve to set up some whiny message about being true to oneself, but rather illustrates the potential long-term cost of differing expectations about life that can beset any couple. 


And it's that sense of universality despite the aura of celebrity that makes The Swell Season so quietly powerful. These days, when so many indie films believe that the only pathway to things dark is through things heavy, and when Reality TV bombards us with countless shrill couples fighting over non-issues, it's almost a radical act to depict a genuine breakup in all its subtlety. You can see things from both the principals' points of view, as a mutual friend might, and this only adds to the melancholic wisdom conveyed by the film. As someone like Cole Porter might have written, it was certainly a swell time--but all seasons eventually pass.


Screens: April 25, 29


[Photo Credit: Chris Dapkins]

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