Available on DVD from DocuRama films this week, The Swell Season is an acclaimed documentary chronicle of the musical collaboration, and failed romantic relationship, of songwriting duo Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. Irglova and Hansard rose to national prominence in 2006 after appearing in the Academy Award-winning film Once, a modern folk musical whose soundtrack consisted entirely of songs written during the couple’s real-life courtship. The Swell Season, named for the harmonic acoustic band that Irglova and Hansard front, is a low-key exploration of their evolving creative and personal relationship, with a particular focus on the consequences of sudden, unexpected fame, and its propensity to highlight the disparate creative priorities that ultimately drove the couple apart.
Hansard, the child of a working-class Irish family, left school at age fourteen to travel to Dublin and become a street busker, and met Irglova, a Czech immigrant, when she was still only thirteen. Vaguely acquainted for several years through Irglova’s parents, their friendship eventually blossomed into a mutually inspirational creative partnership, and eventually a love affair. Following Once’s successful release, Irglova and Hansard’s band, The Swell Season, experienced an upsurge in popularity, inevitably leading to a more hectic touring schedule, and a strain on the couple’s personal relationship as their lives became a blur of rehearsals, performances, and near-constant fan interaction. Most significantly, the shift stressed the differences between Glen’s love of performance and Marketa’s more insular communion with the act of songwriting itself, instigating a conflict of interest that would grow to define the pair both personally and professionally.
Shot during the three years following Once’s acclaimed release, The Swell Season is like the documentary equivalent of a mumblecore film – an almost uncomfortably intense and intimate portrait of two intelligent and artistic people fumbling awkwardly through the final stages of a relationship. For the same reasons, Swell Season is an interesting and appropriate counterpoint to Once, a film critically recognized for its fresh and naturalistic interpretation of the musical genre. Whereas Once employed a sedate, understated, and modest style of presentation to capture and inflect the soaring emotions typical of screen musicals, The Swell Season infuses the documentary format with a groping subjectivity that makes it feel more akin to narrative cinema.
The main allure of the DVD is its special features, which consist almost entirely of performance footage. If you care enough about Hansard and Irglova to seek out a documentary about them, seeing them perform is probably just as exciting for you as the movie itself, and supplemental material to that effect totals about 45 minutes all together. Aside from its unavoidable status as a companion piece to Once, The Swell Season constructs its own enveloping acoustic environment, warming your heart, and at the same time, breaking it.