The black-and-white documentary The Swell Season often feels years out of date. Shot over a multi-year period after Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová—the central duo in the titular band—starred in the 2006 indie hit Once and won the Best Original Song Oscar for “Falling Slowly” from Once’s soundtrack, The Swell Season leaps around in time and intent, documenting their subsequent tour and touching on their individual, joint, and family histories without following any palpable timeline or organizing principle. And while it does stretch just far enough forward in time to capture the dissolution of their personal relationship, it largely feels like old news. It’s too focused on capturing a bygone moment and portraying it as the present, while the band and the couple have inevitably moved on, to a new album, a high-profile suicide at one of their concerts, a band hiatus, and well beyond.
While the documentary holds few significant revelations for fans of Once and The Swell Season’s music, it’s still an admirably up-close portrait of Hansard and Irglová. Literally, in many cases—the film’s three directors often frame their subjects in extreme close-up, simultaneously heightening the intimacy, drawing on Once’s sense of close communion, and getting across the sense of two musicians caught under a microscope after a career-changing success. Where Hansard largely seems comfortable with all the post-Oscar attention, Irglová squirms under the weight of the adulation, and they argue about it, albeit with a stiff self-awareness; while they both seem perfectly comfortable with confessional conversations directly to the camera, they’re more inhibited when expressing emotions to each other as the documentarians watch. And while several key conversations are positioned as turning points for their relationship, they feel more like awkward, coded exchanges, the kind of arguments couples have when they’re trying not to make their friends too uncomfortable.
While both subjects do talk about their state of mind—seemingly unguardedly, with the naked vulnerability that made Once so touching—the most telling insights still come from other people. Hansard’s mother boasts about her son until he’s moved to admit that he doesn’t fully see the point of fame. Band manager Howard Greynolds discusses how the attempt to live up to past successes has discomfited Hansard, who’s seen the bar for success suddenly rise so high that he’s facing the possibility of failure for the first time. But while those looks behind the curtain are telling, The Swell Season gets its richest sense of intimacy simply from watching Irglová and Hansard perform. As is so often the case when they play live, he brings a sense of agonized, cathartic energy to his performance, while she brings an aching smallness and stillness. In both cases, they seem to be baring their souls, but in a way best appreciated in concert, not on camera, years after the fact.