“Inside Llewyn Davis” is another film masterpiece from the Coen brothers, in my view. But not for the reasons so often cited in the puzzled reviews that seems to fill the newspapers and online. Did they watch the same film as me? Don’t they get it?
Firstly, it is “great” because as a mature work of the talented American brothers, it bewitches and bewilders in equal parts and is never ingratiating or like any of their other films. To me that is an act of commercial and artistic bravery.
Second, it appears to be the straightforward tale of 1961 New York and its arts denizens seeking to make it on the folk scene and their trials and tribulations, especially those of the comically unlucky Llewyn Davis of the title. But again, I don’t think it’s that simple. This film seems to be one thing while being in reality quite another entity.
Yes, there’s plenty of folk music, performances and recording sessions in the film to make it look like a traditional music story, but I don’t think the Coen brothers are trying to dust off old classics or use the services of T Bone Burnett to create a boxed compilation of excellent folk ballads for the modern age. Rather, they are being much more subversive and darker in their critique of this hive of hungry hipsters drawn together in Greenwich Village to peddle their wares. To use that great American concept so well used by Salinger before them, the scene they present is entirely “phoney”.
The only genuine folk song in the film comes from an improbable figure, the middle aged woman who takes the stage in their club to play a simple, rustic song and who is heckled by the main character, who cannot bear to hear her sing or the sight of her straggly long grey hair and her less than fashionable dirndl.
Who said the Americans don’t understand irony? Looking at this scene more closely, it forms the pivot of the movie for me. In all innocence, this woman has arrived from out of town to do a turn on the stage and to reflect true Americana: an untutored voice but a genuine one with something to communicate. But she does not fit in because she is so palpably not a part of the fabricated music scene portrayed in the film. She lacks image and she lacks the unspoken credentials of the club crowd she is facing. Indeed, her very naivety and authenticity evoke feelings of hatred and disgust in the mind of Llewyn who is very much the ten cent troubadour with his working class sweater, battered guitar and ruffled beard.
More inauthentic folk comes in the form of an Arran sweater clad harmony group, surely a sideswipe at the huge success of The Clancey Brothers who made a great living in 1960s New York with their lachrymose Irish ballads and songs of long lost colleens. Again, this is easy music delivered through a series of cultural filters, food that has been mashed up for consumption by people who want their music to be comforting. It’s not there to make the listener think or feel but merely to bestow membership of an elite club: a coterie of look-alike and sound alike entertainers who were original and inventive only in their uniform ability to look and sound like one another to the exclusion of all other influences or outside forces.
And how fake is the selection of music performed by our hero, Llewyn? We have already learnt in the film that he had paid for a former girlfriend to have an abortion and that he is urging the same solution on a second girl in the present time. Thus, also without irony, he auditions for a cynical concert promoter with a four hundred year old ballad about the English Queen Jane dying in labour to deliver a healthy baby boy to her beloved King Henry. With what justification can he lend meaning to her words of motherhood and self-sacrifice? (At this stage, he is unable to give birth to anything). Of course, his services are declined by the concert promoter who doesn’t see “any money in it”. So we have a double layer of existential despair in this scene of personal revelation. The singer is attempting to sell one song while the listener is hearing another and using an entirely different set of judging criteria: they are destined never to connect in this world of music that is supposedly all about communication. In a sense, both men are essentially deaf.
Their music brings no harmony. How could it? The musicians are not writing out of their own experience or reflecting anything from their own lives. It is borrowed emotion and therefore sentimental rather than real because it has not been earned, it has not been felt but rather, harvested, processed and refined, like white sugar.
But part of the greatness of this film is that it is not entirely devoid of hope. The characters are mainly likeable and very human. It is a film of black and grey rather than black and white. Everyone is struggling and everyone is flawed, poignantly so, but it’s all undertaken in bad faith.
All is not lost. Llewyn does learn something by the end: to close the apartment door so as not to let the cat out for a second time. Also, when he can connect with the death of his former singing partner, perhaps he will be able one day to give voice to his submerged sorrow?
There is hope – for those who can hear. The film ends on a note of authenticity. We hear the Bob Dylan figure or genuine article coming to blow this folk fakery to pieces. His music is very much his own. Written and performed by him, taken from his own life. When it comes, it sounds loud and penetrating, like a great gale.
So what happens next?
Will Llewyn give up and go on the boats, like his father before him? Will he persist with his tired, borrowed songs? Or might he come to hear the answer blowing in the wind? You decide…