The Strange Sexlessness of John Carney’s ‘Begin Again’ and ‘Once’

In John Carney’s charming worldwide hit Once, the redheaded 30-something Irish busker only known as “the guy” finds something deeply romantic and inspiring in a friendship with a teenage Czech immigrant, known as “the girl.” They connect over music — we can all remember the magic that is “Falling Slowly” — and their relationship is freighted with attraction, desire, and need; but it’s never consummated. They remain apart. He gets her a piano and goes back to London.

Sure, there’s a wildly romantic, Brief Encounter-like feeling in finding your (musical) soulmate and realizing that it can never be (in Once, the Girl is married), and it works fine in that story. But between Once and Carney’s new film, Begin Again, a sort of quasi-remake with movie stars like Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo, well, it’s clear that Carney has a streak of the bourgeois in his stories.

[Warning: Minor spoilers ahead for Begin Again.]

In Begin Again, Knightley is the girl, Greta, and Mark Ruffalo is Dan, the down-and-out A&R guy/record label executive who’s drinking too much and living too messily but sees something like redemption in the form of putting Greta’s wispy little love songs together into an album. Greta is damaged because she moved to New York to be with her musician boyfriend, played by Maroon 5’s blue-eyed soul purveyor/The Voice coach/champion modelizer/the human embodiment of “douche” Adam Levine, so, you know, that was inevitable. Dan’s damage comes from being kicked out of his family home (with wife Miriam, played by Catherine Keener, a two-timing female music journalist who hooked up with a lead singer, and Hailee Steinfeld as his sullen daughter Violet), developing a drinking problem, and having a tenuous position at the record label that he built from scratch.

When two damaged souls need redemption, the traditional narrative comes, most often, in the form of a forbidden love. But Greta and Dan find salvation through music, through traveling around New York City to record her songs, live and true. Carney has a knack for creating scenarios where the music is working to express some beat of the story, and very often, it serves as a replacement for sex between the two lead characters.

Things get goopy, because Greta is amazing. Greta advises Violet on “how not to dress slutty,” to put away the teenage crop tops and tiny shorts that the camera has been creepily leering after, and to embrace her inner Madewell tomboy, just like Greta, who’s swaddled in sweaters, boyfriend jeans, and high-waisted pants worthy of Annie Hall. Dan and Greta spend a night traipsing around Manhattan with one iPod and two playlists, romantically reenacting Dan’s first date with his estranged wife. It looks like they’re going to get down and do it, but Ruffalo’s essentially cock-blocked by a roommate.

And then, since Greta and Dan don’t have sex, make out, or even a peck on the cheek, there’s this sort of weirdly puritan undertone to this film which we’ve seen before in Carney’s work. Music is the ultimate connection, the courtly love of a muse is the top-tier expression of being, and the love-and-sex worries are far, far below the potential transcendence of music. Yet in Begin Again, Knightley and Ruffalo spend a lot of time staring at each other. Whole scenes pass with the actors making googly eyes that are supposed to express everything. Ruffalo calls her “babe,” repeatedly. She’s a faux mother, the absolute pinnacle of ladylike refinement, compared to the lead singer-sexin’, crop top-wearin’ women of loose morals in Dan’s estranged family.

The ever-charming Ruffalo is at his Ruffalo-iest in this film as Dan, head half-cocked and mumbling about Greta’s beauty and the perfect song. He’s scruffy as hell, he’s half-buzzed, he’s got enough money for a fancy car. Certainly many women would choose to take a tumble with this character. It’s strange that Greta doesn’t even go for it — perhaps she’s hung up on Adam Levine, perhaps she realizes one of Carney’s recurrent truths: marriage is a sacred bond, and if you can muse your way into repairing a marriage and the relationship between father and child through the gift of your song, you may just be the best muse ever.

Not every film needs to have the two lead characters falling in perfect love forever, but with Begin Again and Once, Carney is creating his own special niche, where two soulmates meet and will never, ever consummate their relationship (because someone’s already married and that’s important, those bounds are never breached), despite the fact that they can make beautiful music together. It’s refreshing to see music take the place of sex in one film, but I’m not sure whether it should really be a recurring theme. Sometimes a struggling singer-songwriter should do what any other girl with a pulse would: throw caution to the wind and make out with Mark Ruffalo.