Inside Llewyn Davis: Top Coens, Cannes Highlight

Cannes Film Fest 2013–Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Inside Llewyn Davis,” their fictional tale of the folk music scene in Greenwich Village, is their most enthralling, significant, and enjoyable feature since “No Country for Old Men,” which deservedly won the 2007 Best Picture Oscar.

Like most of the Coens’ features, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” which is French-financed, world-premiered at the Cannes Film Fest, where the siblings had won several awards, including the Palme d’Or for “Barton Fink.” As of Day Five, the movie emerges as the strongest picture in competition.

CBS will release the film stateside December 6 in time for serious award considerations. With shrewd marketing and strong critical support, the film stands a chance to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. The multi-nuanced performance of Oscar Isaac, who carries the inevitably fragmented picture on his robust shoulders, should get a Best Actor nomination. In physical appearance, vocal range (he performs his own songs) and demeanor, Isaac is so right for playing the flawed (anti)hero, it’s hard to imagine the saga with him.

Each and every festival, I resist the temptation of seeing one or two films at their first press screenings (and be one of the first critics to review them), instead opting to attend the official premiere, surrounded by spectators who are not critics or journalists. It’s a different experience (which is the subject for another column). I therefore apologize for my relatively late review, though I have to admit that I derived a good deal of pleasure out of the public screening, to which I went without reading anything about the film.

I would like to clarify several misunderstandings about the film. “Inside Llewyn Davis“ may be an intimate film in terms of scale, focusing on one character in a relatively short period of time (circa 1961), but it is not a minor film in the Coens’ oeuvre.

Second, though the film has serious moments, the Coens have made a darkly humorous satire, one in which the tone navigates from the serious to the comedic, and from the frivolous to the relevant, between scenes and often within the same scene. Shifty, ambiguous tonality, open to subjective interpretation, has always been a forte of the brothers’ work.

Third, though inspired by the life of a particular musician, the tale could apply to any struggling musician, or any bohemian artist who refused to compromise his art for commercial considerations.

In its rich and dense subtext, which is submerged within an admittedly fractured narrative, the Coens offer a portrait “the young artist as a loser,” to borrow a phrase from Ernest Hemingway. And who else but the Coens to make such a deftly- crafted, highly engaging film about a self-defeating musician, who at the start of the tale comes across as a naïve singer lacking self-awareness, but blessed with strong humanist instincts (of which a cat is the most beneficiary), if not good manners.

Like most of the Coens’ features, especially their films about artists (“Barton Fink” comes to mind), “Inside Llewyn Davis” is episodic, and it doesn’t claim to fully comprehend its engimatic character. Inevitable comparisons will be made with “O’ Brother, Where Art Thou?” which was broader (and more commercial), and not only for the music of T-Bone Burnett, who is credited as executive producer in this picture.

The tale unfolds as (sort of) a road movie, even if nominally there’s only one trip (though a lengthy and significant one), outside of New York to Chicago, in a snowy winter no less. The journey in this film is both external and internal. The external one is based on the dichotomy of Uptown (where Llewyn’s friends, the Gorfeins from Columbia University, reside, and where he often crashes on their sofa) and Downtown, specifically Bleecker and MacDougal Streets in Greenwich Village. Up and Down we see our clumsy hero takes the subway, often with a cat he’s supposed to protect, but manages to escape at the worst possible moments. The Coens come up with a witty idea about the felines’ mistaken identity, and how the male cat is referred to linguistically.

The second, and more important journey, is the inner odyssey, involving a growing self-consciousness of Llewyn of who he is as an artist, what his goals, strengths, and limitations are. Is he just a loser, as one of the characters describes him, or a professional who perceives his art as calling and demands to be paid (as little as $40) for his services, and who’s humiliated when asked to sing at dinner parties. Since he always carries his guitar with him, friends ask him to play and sing.

It is noteworthy, that “Inside Llewyn Davis” offers a more satisfying, poignant, and authentic portrait of bohemian life than recent filmic efforts, such as Walter Salles’ “On the Road” (an honorable failure in dramatizing Jack Kerouac’s seminal book of the same title, which played in Cannes Fest last year), or the undernourished “Howl,” about the gay Jewish poet, Allen Ginzberg, a contemporary of Llewyn (who is Irish, by the way).

The opening sequence is stunning: Set at the Gaslight Cafe, Llewyn Davis is seen singing one of his bleaker song about being hanged. After the show, he is told that a friend is waiting for him outside, and indeed, in a dark alley, he gets beaten out by the cowboy-stranger for reasons that neither he nor we understand. The Coens return to this darkly surreal scene at the very end of the saga, which clarifies the encounter and provides a nicely symmetric coda.

On the surface, the film is deceptively simple, and its plot could be described as a series of crashes on the couches (or floors) of benevolent friends and colleagues, some of whom just feel sorry and contempt for him.

Among those is Jean Berkey (Carey Mulligan, sporting long dark hair), who’s married to another musician, Jim (Justin Timberlake, impressive in a very small role). Sour and unpleasant, Jean holds that Llewyn is probably the father of her baby (she is not sure, though). In one encounter after another, she puts Llewyn down, demanding money for (illegal) abortion, and suggesting that he uses two condoms in his next irresponsible escapades with women. The inside joke is that Llewyn is sort of a nebish, a la Woody Allen’s Jewish characters in his 1970s films, but women find his passivity attractive.

There is an unexpectedly brilliant scene, when Llewyn visits the doctor to arrange for Jean’s abortion, only to be told that the previous woman he had knocked up, Diane, had decided to keep the baby but had not bothered to tell him, and so Llewyn doesn’t owe the doctor any money for Jean’s abortion. Llewyn realizes that he is a father to a two-year old baby, somewhere in Akron, Ohio….)

Jean’s part is narrowly conceived, and as played by Mulligan, it becomes even more of an irritatingly one-note performance. It’s one of the few shortcomings of an otherwise original and astute scenario.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” adds another singular work to the already distinguished output of the most consistently reliable, and most reliably consistent, independent filmmakers working in the American cinema.

Cast:

Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, Ethan Phillips, Robin Barrett, Max Cassella, Jerry Grayson, Jeanine Serralles, Adam Driver, Stark Sands, Alex Karposvky, F. Murray Abraham

Credits

Production: Studiocanal
Directors and writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Producers: Scott Rudin, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Executive producers: Robert Graf, Olivier Courson, Ron Halperin
Director of photography: Bruno Delbonnel
Production designer: Jess Gonchor
Costume designer: Mary Zophres
Editor: Roderick James
Executive music producer: T Bone Burnett

MPAA: R rating,
Running time: 105 minutes