Warning: Critical plot details are revealed in this post.
My first experience with Begin Again was under some of the worst viewing circumstances possible. It was on my birthday last year. I was flying back to L.A. after 30 consecutive hours of delayed planes, mile-long lines for flight exchanges, layovers that never ended, and airport workers “trying their best.” I was tired and pissed off and figured that Begin Again looked as good a film as any to help pass the time. I thought the film would be easy, silly, dumb – not worth the $15 to catch it theaters, but fine for free on a plane.
Dave, a famed musician on the rise, has been gone for a few days taking meetings in L.A. When he arrives home to the lavish New York loft he shares with Gretta, the two have a hug and Dave puts on a new song he recorded while away. He pours himself and Gretta glasses of wine, and the two stand in the kitchen to take the song in.
“I don’t know if I’m the fool who’s getting this all wrong,” Dave’s lyrics tell us. And then something happens. An obvious, palpable shift in mood takes place. The room becomes heavy, weighed down by Gretta’s suspicion and Dave’s guilt.
“You take me to another space in time. You take me to a higher place, so I’m about to get out of the race,” Dave bellows from the track. Gretta stares at Dave as she interprets the words, assuming the worst. Her eyes start to well. Dave can’t even look at her, his head sunk in shame. They finally lock eyes and Gretta hauls off and slaps him. “What the fuck is wrong with you?” Dave says as he walks away (the way he angrily throws his glass of wine into the sink is such a perfect and honest way to punctuate the moment). Dave walks away, Gretta turns the song off, and then Dave reenters the kitchen to confess. He hooked up with Mim, a gal who works for Dave’s label, while he was in L.A. The song is for her.
|FYI, here’s Mim|
“Maybe it’ll go away,” Dave tells Gretta. “Maybe it’ll fade. But I have to see it through.” We cut to Knightley’s silent but devastated face, and then the scene ends.
Now, like most great movie scenes, this one gets better every time I watch it. Gretta having the wherewithal to know something is up, and Dave throwing that wine glass, was what initially caught my eye when watching this scene for the first time. But when I revisited the film, I studied this scene and found so much more to appreciate.
The tension actually begins at the start of the scene, when Dave comes back home. Levine’s regretful, stoic demeanor is a great contrast to Knightley’s excitement when they first embrace. If you watch Levine once they’re in the kitchen, it’s almost as if he’s itching to reveal something. The fact that he so eagerly wants Gretta to listen to the new song is evidence to this. Watching the scene in hindsight, it’s almost as if he wants to get caught.
The way Gretta studies Dave as the song is playing is something only a person who has been with someone else for a very long time can do. She knows his words carry weight. She knows they came from some place new. She knows his body language, his unease. Knightley’s work here really makes you feel like these two have been together for a while. And Levine’s nuance is so captivating here. He really didn’t get the acting credit he deserved for his work in the film.
The slap and the throwing of the wine glass are unexpected and painfully real. As is Dave walking back into the kitchen after he’s stormed off. Movie arguments are rarely depicted how arguments go down in real life. In real life, they’re long and brutal and circular, which, admittedly, doesn’t really apply to this scene. On the surface, this scene conveys my initial thoughts of Begin Again, that it was going to be a generic romantic comedy in which boy falls for girl and love conquers all (this time through music). But there’s more. There’s an energy to this scene, an agonizing jolt of real life, that permeates throughout the entire film. It’s the first scene that made me consider Begin Again for what it is: a great film best judged after you’ve seen it at least once. But twice would certainly be better.