CANNES, France — Whatever its commercial fortunes when it opens in the U.S. this December, "Inside Llewyn Davis" already has won the acclaim sought so ardently by the fictional folk singer of its title, the latest charismatic loser in a long, stumbling conga line of Coen brothers protagonists.
The Coens' new film is the popular favorite so far of this year's Cannes Film Festival. So far. We're only a few days into the thing. Set in the Greenwich Village folk music scene near the end of its life cycle, "Inside Llewyn Davis" follows Davis, formerly one half of a folk duo, now on his own after his partner's suicide. Over a week's time, in the winter, he drifts from predicament to predicament and sofa to sofa, losing his friends' cat, then finding it. The year is 1961, when folkies and beatniks were about to make way for Bob Dylan and the real start of a new decade.
In the middle of the picture, photographed on good old-fashioned film stock in creamily muted colors by French cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, the struggling solo act portrayed with sly antiheroic wit by Oscar Isaac (he sings, and well) embarks on a road trip to Chicago. His comrades are a junkie jazz musician, played by veteran Coen collaborator John Goodman, and his menacing sidekick, played by a near-mute Garrett Hedlund of "On the Road." Leaving a pregnant lover (Carey Mulligan), the missing cat and a tangle of ill will in the rearview mirror, Davis hopes his rum luck will change with an audition for Bud Grossman, the fictional Chicago owner of the actual, once-upon-a-time Gate of Horn nightclub on Dearborn.
Inside the club Davis sits alone with his guitar. This is his chance. He pours his voice, his heart and his battered, bitter soul into a time-tested ballad. Like the other traditional folk melodies performed in the Coens' film, this one's delivered in its unhurried entirety. He sounds good.
A pause. Then, the club owner, played by an exquisitely diffident F. Murray Abraham, responds with: "I don't see a lot of money here."
Ashes in the mouth — that's the Coens' preferred taste in comedy. Rugs exist to be pulled out from under their holy wandering fools ("The Big Lebowski"), Job-like schlemiels ("A Serious Man," my favorite of theirs) and insecure artistes whose sense of entitlement begs for a comeuppance ("Barton Fink"). "Inside Llewyn Davis" combines aspects of all these, plus a considerable dose of the musicality infusing "O Brother, Where Are Thou?" T-Bone Burnett supervised the soundtrack on that project; he returns, fruitfully, for the Coens' evocation of the Village folk scene in the twilight years of its relative popularity.
At the first screening in Cannes, "Inside Llewyn Davis" clearly connected with the international press corps, its most exuberant sequence (the only true exuberance, in fact, permitted in the movie) receiving a spontaneous round of applause. Davis has been called to sit in on a studio session, as one of the "John Glenn Singers," recording a Sputnik-era novelty tune "Please Please Mr. Kennedy (Don't Shoot Me Into Outer Space)." It's a sublime routine, revealing the Coens' ability to needle a specific cultural moment or milieu while reveling in its delirious entertainment value.
If "Inside Llewyn Davis" eventually settles for a little less than the Coens' best, the movie nonetheless is unlikely to get a warmer reception anywhere else. The filmmakers are semi-regulars here, having won the Palme d'Or in 1991 for "Barton Fink," their hyperbolic, hallucinatory black comedy depicting screenwriter's block and various forms of fascism in 1941 Hollywood. More recently, in 2007, the Coens premiered "No Country for Old Men" at Cannes. The film nabbed the best picture Academy Award, among others, nearly a year later.
In its sardonic examination of failure, in all the un-glittering facets of Davis' professional and personal life, "Inside Llewyn Davis" looks ravishing and sounds just right. The script was inspired, in part, by Dave Von Ronk's memoir "The Mayor of MacDougal Street"; a few details of Van Ronk's life, including his stints as a merchant seaman, have made it into the movie. My initial impression is: like, not love. But I'm eager to see it and hear it again — despite the thinness of the Coens' conception of their central figure — if only for the best of the songs, and for the testy banter between Davis' agent and his hostile secretary. Robbie Collin of The Telegraph put it this way: "You drift out of the cinema on an intensely weird cloud of existential angst and toe-tapping acoustic guitar music."
Festival de Cannes is better known for angst without the toe-tapping. But one wonders if this year's jury president, Steven Spielberg, and his fellow jurors will ultimately favor the neat, heartwarming likes of "Like Father, Like Son," Japanese director Kore-Eda Hirokazu's story of two families and one major screw-up at their newborn sons' maternity ward. Some years, big deals at Cannes end up being big deals at the following year's Oscar telecast. Other years, not so much — but at the very least, a Palme winner such as last year's "Amour" can hop a fast track heading toward the foreign-language Oscar statuette.
"Like Father, Like Son" may well be next year's recipient. Or maybe it's "The Past," the newest from Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi. Farhadi won the Oscar for foreign-language feature for "A Separation," and "The Past" continues his investigation of subtle deceptions, parental power plays and buried secrets.
A French woman, played by Berenice Bejo of "The Artist," reunites with her separated Iranian husband (Ali Mosaffa) to finalize their divorce. She has precious little sense of solidity beneath her feet. Pregnant by her new boyfriend (Tahar Rahim), she finds herself at odds with an increasingly withdrawn teenage daughter from a prior relationship. Bejo's character cannot shake the feeling she has a rival in the boyfriend's suicidal wife, who lies in a coma in a hospital bed.
It sounds impossibly heavy, but as with "A Separation" (though with less elegance of exposition and plotting), Farhadi's story juggles sympathies with exceptional balance. Bejo, her natural ebullience tamped down, never asks for pity or sympathy; like Farhadi's work as a whole, her excellent performance asks only that we realize that people have their reasons.
Other noteworthy competition titles from the festival's first few days include "A Touch of Sin," Chinese writer-director Jia Zhangke's four-storyline mosaic of corruption and spiritual bankruptcy in the land of the economic miracles. It's an arresting change-up for the maker of "Still Life" and "24 City," and while the bluntness of the violence — not to mention the polemics — doesn't always jibe with the director's supple strengths, it's never less than fascinating. How he got this one past the state censors, I'll never know.
Monday brings a host of new competition titles, among them Takashi Miike's "Shield of Straw"; Steven Soderbergh's HBO Liberace biopic "Behind the Candelabra"; "Only God Forgives," the Bangkok-set revenge splatter party from "Drive" maestro Nicolas Winding Refn, starring Ryan Gosling and Kristin Scott Thomas; plus the world premieres later in the week of Alexander Payne's "Nebraska" and James Gray's "The Immigrant."
"The rain is the star of the festival," actress Bejo told me in an interview over the opening weekend, during the latest downpour. This explains why a few hundred of us took the time to see the restored version of "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" the other night, as part of the Cannes Classics slate. If you can't beat the weather, you can at least join it to the right 92 minutes of cinema.
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