Suffused in a blue-grey wintry light and flecked with brown, beige and burgundy, Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis plays out in a low-key melancholy mood broken only when simmering frustration boils over into anger or sardonic asides swirl up into sudden savage comedy. The reception in the 1000-seat Debussy cinema, full of critics and journalists who had just queued for up to 90-minutes in the pouring rain, was genuinely warm rather than rowdily celebratory. It was as if the film’s calm control – its firm-handed, light-touch mastery – had placed everyone under a spell.
Oscar Isaac is folk singer Llewyn Davis, something of a star in the East Village but struggling to sell records in Cincinnati. Nothing quite goes right for Llewyn as he struggles with his principles over the course of the film, watching lesser acts such as his friends Jim and Jean (Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan) gain acceptance while he gets beaten up in a dark alley and visits his manager to discover he’s received no returns, no post, nothing. What’s more, he has a serious cat problem.
An artist’s struggle in an unforgiving environment is something the Coens have dealt with before in Barton Fink, a previous Cannes success that won them the Palme D’Or in 1991 (and which also featured John Goodman in malevolent form). Inside Llewyn David is a very different film however – apart from a long, strange roadtrip to Chicago and a sinister figure who bookends the film, this is a naturalistic comedy-drama that runs on beautifully observed period detail, a range of typically colourful characters and a some sharp, angry humour – most of it driven by Llewyn’s deep frustration and disappointment. What really raises it, and serves as a mark of the Coens’ supreme confidence, are the numerous songs – mostly played in full – that punctuate proceedings. Each serves a different dramatic function (without telling stories through lyrics) and each stops the film and makes you look closely at, and think hard about, Llewyn as he performs (one of the songs is more of a comic number with Timberlake and Adam Driver, but even that has a bearing on the direction Llewyn’s life will take).
For such a modest film, Inside Llewyn Davis is as rich as anything the Coens has done before. We’ll get a clearer idea of how the film has been received tomorrow, when the reviews come out and the red-carpet audience experience it at its world premiere in the evening. On first viewing though, with the jury still out, Inside Llewyn Davis is leading the pack at this year’s festival.