Just about everyone with a heartbeat has had this tingly experience. You're at a movie, and a song, as if by magic, breaks through the surface of the drama. Suddenly, you're no longer sitting and watching you're soaring. That's the feeling you get at the 1954 A Star Is Born, or at Moulin Rouge, and you can get it, as well, from naturalistic movies that are built like musicals, such as Nashville, Saturday Night Fever, or Sid & Nancy. But until Once, which was written and directed by John Carney, I'm not sure that I'd ever seen a small-scale, nonstylized, kitchen-sink drama in which the songs take on the majesty and devotion of a musical dream.
On the sidewalks of Dublin, a 30ish fellow (Glen Hansard) strums a guitar with a worn-out hole where the pick board should be. His face would look cherubic if it weren't swathed in an orange beard, and he sings with a fervor that might make your average street musician blush. Most folks pass him right by, but one girl (Markéta Irglová), shy yet with a disarmingly open smile, lingers, attracted by his braying passion. Once tells the deceptively simple story of how these two (we never learn their names) are drawn, over a few days, into each other's orbit, a romance or is it? played out in the songs they sing together.
Early on, they go to a musical-instrument store, where the girl, a Czech immigrant in her early 20s, likes to play the piano (she can't afford one herself). He teaches her one of the songs he wrote and hopes to record professionally, and as they begin to play, with him singing ''I don't know you/But I want you/All the more for that,'' the scene becomes a shimmering reverie of love at its birth. Is this what they feel? What they hope to feel? Or is it just an exalted moment of harmonic bliss? That we don't entirely know and that they don't know either is part of what's so touching about it, and the beauty of the number, the way that the voices blend and soar, building and stretching the words into a sustained cry, makes it seem as if time itself is standing still.
Hansard, a member of the Irish group the Frames, wrote the movie's songs, and they are softly gorgeous odes to troubled hearts what emo promises and (to my ears) never delivers. Away from the piano and guitar, Once moves with the dartingly unresolved, clear-eyed spirit of a French New Wave film. The girl, it turns out, has a daughter, plus a husband in the Czech Republic; the guy has an ex in London he may still love (their relationship is captured in a home-video montage that's like a mini operetta). Instinctively, we want to see Hansard, with his tender bluster, and Irglová, all watchful innocence, save each other; Once plays off that desire, then peeks behind it. Away from the music, the two are caught in a limbo of doubt and expectation. Yet when Irglová, singing with a demo she's listening to on headphones, walks down a street luxuriating in the percolating sadness of ''If You Want Me,'' or the two of them, in the recording studio Hansard has rented for a weekend, give themselves over to the syncopated yearning of ''When Your Mind's Made Up,'' the movie swoons, and you will too.