The first time I saw the Coen Brothers' film Inside Llewyn Davis at Cannes, I was struck by the virtuosity of the imagery and the plaintive sadness of the story without being entirely convinced the pieces all held together.
This is their sixteenth feature since Blood Simple. The brothers have always been fabulists who are masters at the glancing or the oblong. Their refusal to tell stories straight has always been one of their idiosyncratic and admirable traits.
The new film is a deft picaresque, a fantasia in the vein of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, though darker and more threatening. It’s streaked in pain and humiliation and colored by the nasty moment to moment vicissitudes of fate and circumstance that situates it closer to Barton Fink and A Serious Man.
At times it felt almost too jagged and loopy, the individual pieces lovely and haunting, but overall, somewhat amorphous and disconnected. Still, large parts of the movie lingered with me long after Cannes, especially the tour de force thirty minute road set piece that occurs halfway through the movie.
Having the chance to see it a couple more times the disparate parts and wild tonal contrasts seem more coherent and thematically bound. The inventive structural patterning of the script, not apparent until the end, gives a governing shape, and kick to the material.
The story concerns the absurd and comically despairing episodes in the life of the eponymous folk singer. The movie’s set over a couple of days in the winter of 1961 (significantly the year when Bob Dylan detonated the Greenwich Village folk scene). Beautifully played by Oscar Isaac, with just the right mixture of grievance, seriousness and comic exasperation, Llewyn Davis is introduced, in close up, performing at the Gaslight Cafe the wounding lament, "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me" ("Poor boy, I've been around this world").
Isaac has a nicely modulated voice and he does all of his own singing and plays his own guitar, a nice touch of verisimilitude that adds a more emotionally authentic and realistic vein than that of O, Brother. The somewhat jarring opening quickly establishes Llewyn’s abrasive, mocking nature. After the number, he says, "You've probably heard that one before, but what the hell. If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it's a folk song."
Summoned to a back alley by an alleged acquaintance, he is immediately pummeled by the mysterious and wrathful figure in black. The corners of the frame give way to a blinding whiteness, suggesting a peculiar dream state as Llewyn suddenly awakens, in a well-lit apartment. In fact, a number of scenes begin just this way, the comically undone protagonist being suddenly jolted into consciousness.
A man with no fixed address Llewyn is obstinate, abrupt and wholly untethered from responsibility, work or obligation. He roams from one apartment to the next, typically alternating between the well-heeled Upper West Side space of his music patrons, the Gorfeins, or the couch of the musical couple, Jim and Jean (played by Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan). The straight life terrifies him.
The story is largely about his professional quest to remake himself as a solo performer following a personal and professional tragedy. The Coens work in inference, the spiky exchanges between Llewyn and Jean all surly recrimination and nasty epithets. For all of his faults, contradictions and self-righteousness (he even has the gall to accuse Jean of being a "careerist"), Llewyn has enough talent and and persistence that he is accepted by his circle of associates and friends.
Despite the period and milieu, the film is politically fugitive. The protest song movement is addressed, and civil rights is acknowledged through an inventive use of the song, “500 Miles.” (The specter of Vietnam is invoked in the form of a white-bred singer named Troy Nelson who plays gigs during weekend furloughs from Fort Dix.)
The Coens are drawn to doubles and contrasts. Troy Nelson's smooth emotional engagement is a direct rebuke to Llewyn's surliness, or the assimilated Jew Arthur Milgrum (a play on the great and irascible Minneapolis art film personality Al Milgrom) who reconceives himself as the cowboy Al Cody.
By contrast, Llewyn Davis cannot escape or reinvent himself. Even after he undertakes a surreal quest to snare an audition and make a favorable impression with the influential Chicago club impresario Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), Llewyn suffers a particularly cruel and soul-killing insult that illustrates his own marginalization.
The Coens are working for the first time with the superb French cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, and he sharply accentutes their deeply recognizable and exacting formal style, especially compositionally with their off-center framing. The dominant visual metaphor is confinement, emphatic in the recurrent scenes set inside apartments and clubs, recording studios, the impossibly tight landings of the Village walk ups, subway compartments and especially car interiors.
The thirty-minute Chicago sojourn contains some of the most enthralling images of any film I've seen in the last year. The cuts and transitions are much different than anywhere else in the film. The screen ink black, the light materializes and the perspective is the forward thrust of a car captured from rear. It’s evocative though tense and mysteriously alive.
Llewyn is a passenger helping out with costs to Chicago, where he is regaled by the fanciful stories of a blowhard jazz musician (John Goodman) and his "valet," the impossibly good-looking actor and somewhat criminally inclined (Garrett Hedlund).
As shot by Delbonnel and designed by Jess Gonchar, the American landscape has never felt so restrictive and marked by hallucinatory dread, expressed by the the perilously narrow backroads and garishly lit all-night diners conjuring all manner of creative exhaustion and artistic depletion. It plays like a charged and deranged version of the Hades episode of Leopold Bloom’s incident-fraught carriage ride to Dignam’s funeral in James Joyce’s Ulysses, ending like it began, with a man confronting his own oblivion, (Joyce is a recurring literary source whose connection is made explicit by the movie’s end.)
The music, produced and arranged by the Coens’ regular musical collaborator, T Bone Burnett, is majestic and sublime. (I particularly loved that David Mansfield, one of my favorite composers who did the extraordinary score of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, played guitar and fiddle on several of the tracks.)
The protagonist is not changed or awakened or certainly not softened. He is rather a man trapped by history and caught in a historical tumult he is almost certainly incapable of fully realizing. Not for nothing are the final words of this sharp-eyed and magnetic work out of time: “Au revoir.”
Images: Cannes Film festival and CBS Films.