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'Inside Llewyn Davis' finds Coen brothers at their best

Studio Canal

Joel and Ethan Coen's "Inside Llewyn Davis" (out in France this week), about a folk singer in 1960s New York, ranks with the filmmakers’ greatest achievements. After its prize-winning run at Cannes, the movie is a contender for the Oscars.


Abdellatif Kechiche’s lesbian romance “Blue is the Warmest Colour” took Cannes by storm in May, dazzling critics, snagging the top award and continuing to dominate headlines with behind-the-scenes drama in the weeks leading up to its US release.

But there was another masterwork unveiled at the festival, though it made fewer waves: Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Inside Llewyn Davis”, which deservedly took home the second-place Grand Prize and is set to hit French and US cinemas in the coming weeks, before making its way to the UK early next year.

A gorgeous, razor-sharp deadpan comedy suffused with sorrow about a struggling folk singer in early-1960s New York, the film is considered a strong contender for the Oscars.

I’m not an unconditional fan of the Coens, who sometimes treat their characters with smarter-than-thou condescension that can make their films feel like cold, hermetic exercises in irony (“Burn After Reading” is a prime example, and their 1991 Palme d’Or winner “Barton Fink” isn’t far off).

But their new movie ranks with their very best (“Fargo”, “No Country for Old Men”, “A Serious Man”) in its nearly pitch-perfect balance of biting satirical humour and deep reserves of feeling.

The film’s protagonist (played by singer-actor Oscar Isaac in a star-making turn) embodies the tricky duality of cruelty and tenderness that makes “Inside Llewyn Davis” such a treat. Navigating his mess of an offstage life -- couch-hopping, mooching, and wrangling with his scam artist manager and another folk singer who may or may not be carrying his child (Carey Mulligan, radiating fury tinged with longing in a marvellously vivid comic performance) – Llewyn Davis is a schlumpy, scowling grump. But when he performs (glorious folk tunes arranged by T-Bone Burnett and sung live on set), revealing a honeyed, slightly raspy voice, his face mellows, his eyes close, and he seems to be opening his soul to the world. This jerk’s music is his redeeming feature.

Indeed, the folk songs in “Inside Llewyn Davis" (even the ones the filmmakers mock affectionately), with their yearning lyrics and melancholy melodies, don’t just offset the dry, classically Coen-esque wit of the screenplay; they give the movie a rich emotional subtext, allowing the characters’ often laugh-out-loud gripes, swipes and one-liners to echo with hints of regret and desire.

As Llewyn Davis fights to kick-start his floundering career, scrape together money without sacrificing his ambitions, get along with the people in his private and professional lives, and keep track of a cat he inconveniently finds himself caring for, we come to understand that the movie is a comedy about loss and letting go -- of an artistic partner, a love interest, a childhood dream.

Justin Timberlake, Adam Driver offer stellar support

As usual, the Coens find a fitting visual match for their themes: cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel uses wintry whites, greys and browns, and repeated shots of hallways, long subway cars, and empty stretches of highway suggest the title character’s existential anxiety.

Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake in "Inside Llewyn Davis" (Studio Canal)
Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake in "Inside Llewyn Davis" (Studio Canal)

Such images feel just right for a film that’s not only a meditation on art, failure, responsibility, and self-acceptance, but also a portrait of a specific American cultural moment -- at the start of the Vietnam War -- when young people were facing stark choices of identity and values.

Along the way, “Inside Llewyn Davis” features one of the most sublime sequences the Coens have ever shot, involving a snowy highway in the middle of the night, that pesky cat Llewyn looks after, and a snippet of opera playing on the car radio.

The film also flaunts a uniformly superb ensemble, with Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, Jeanine Serralles, Max Casella, Stark Sands, F. Murray Abraham, Robin Martlett, and Adam Driver (of hit HBO series “Girls”) delivering jewel-like supporting performances.

The holiday movie season is just getting underway, but as of now, “Inside Llewyn Davis” ranks as one of the very best films of 2013.

A version of this article appeared as a blog post on during the Cannes Film Festival in May.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” comes out in France on Nov. 6, the US on Dec. 6 and the UK on Jan. 24.

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