by James Hansen
It was a bit strange when I realized my first trip to France – occurring during the month of May – wouldn’t be for the Cannes Film Festival. Luckily for me, and Parisians, not only do Cannes films open quickly here (Only God Forgives and The Past are already in theaters), but many films that won’t open for a while have a chance to be screened via the Cannes a Paris series. Showcasing “highlights” from the festival’s official selection, there have been plenty opportunities to enjoy Cannes outside of Cannes. Alas, I don’t trust my French enough to see films without English or French subs (my reading comprehension is good-ish). As such, the Coen Brothers new film Inside Llewyn Davis, currently considered one of the frontrunners for the Palme d’Or, was an easy choice. And it wasn’t even sold out!
The soft opening of Inside Llewyn Davis suggests the Coens may be offering a different type of character than we’ve seen in their previous features. A slow ballad rings from the voice of Llewyn (a terrific Oscar Isaac), shot in a classical “unplugged” concert style. The character’s introductory emotional state bleeds through the lyrics of the song. The film immediately hits you with music and there’s a lot more of that to come. Indeed, perhaps even more than O Brother Where Art Thou?, this film, or at least its lead character, lives and breathes through the music. There is a deeply understated, affecting quality that pervades the film, providing it with some kind of backbone as it drifts with Llewyn from place to place. Other forms of music appear as cheap knockoffs, full of cliches and lacking depth. Despite Llewyn’s brashness, the Coens feel fully on his cynical side.
Nonetheless, while different than the leads of A Serious Man or Burn After Reading, Llewyn ends up as a classic Coen character – difficult, off-putting in humorous ways, self-involved, etc. Here, Llewyn’s understated back story adds interesting depths to the character’s wandering, distant nature. For a while, Llewyn’s quest feeds a tale of a man who can’t speak or interact with others as well as the loss of partnership and the toll it takes. He finds a means of communication not through conversation, but through his music, his words, his art. The music as its own kind of language leads to some of the film’s emotional sequences, but also threatens to drain it of its sly humor filled in by an array of minor characters. It fits comfortably within the world of Llewyn, but it perhaps less certainly fits within the entire world of the film. There is something caught in the middle here – much like Llewyn himself – that doesn’t feel wholly...whole.
And, while the film is nuanced enough to work around a number of cliches, the characters and scope of the film almost too familiar. The direction of the film is sharp and sensitive, but it also never seems particularly ambitious. Llewyn’s ventures undoubtedly reflects a sensibility very much present in the Coens’ recent films – that is, life’s incredible journey as a circular, repetitive road to nowhere – but one can’t help feeling this has been treaded on in the same way before by the Coens. And maybe that is just how it goes.