CINEMA: Inside Inside Llewyn Davis


THE GUARDIAN: Inside Llewyn Davis is set in 1961 in New York, amid the folk-revival scene from which Bob Dylan would emerge. But this is not a story about the singer-songwriter, whom Ethan Coen called “the elephant in the room” of the film. The story, inspired by the memoir of folk singer Dave Van Ronk, instead takes as its main character a struggling artist teetering between success and failure, who would later be eclipsed by what its star, Oscar Isaac, described as “the poet, the abstract thinker” that Dylan became. It is about, said Joel Coen, “the lesser-known scene that Dylan came into as such a transformative figure”. Isaac, breaking through into his first major leading film role, is the heart and soul of Inside Llewyn Davis, which contains lengthy sequences of him performing entire songs. Ethan Coen called the search for the lead “a casting challenge; we were screwed before we met Oscar Isaac”, who is a classically trained guitarist. Music producer T Bone Burnett, who performed with Dylan, said: “The odds against us making the film at all were very long. The odds against us finding Oscar Isaac were one in 17 million.” […] Some of the lovingly recreated performances – a trio of chaps in Aran sweaters singing in close harmony, or John and Jean’s songs, reminiscent of Peter, Paul and Mary – have a comic edge. But, said Joel Coen, there is no parody intended. “I think you can tell from the movie that this music is something that we have a deep respect and fondness for. Not to say that there’s nothing funny about folk music – there are plenty of funny things about folk music.” MORE

This is Oscar Isaac’s fourth Cannes. He was here in 2009 with Agora, then Robin Hood in 2010, then Drive the year after. Actually, he’s quite the film fest fixture: at Venice with W.E. and Toronto with 10 Years. So it’s testimony to his quicksilver skills – or to a collective forgetfulness – that he was greeted at Cannes like a starlet emerged fresh from the ether. A miraculous discovery found fully formed on the shore.

“Is that guy a real folk singer?” asked the veteran critic next to me as the end credits rolled on the Coen brothers’ latest, Inside Llewyn Davis, in which Isaac stars as a Dave van Ronk-ish singer-songwriter seemingly destined for obscurity in early 1960s New York. “Where have you come from?” was the first question put to him in the press conference the next day. He didn’t respond. He just grinned and enjoyed it, clean-cut and scrubbed, almost bobbing with pleasure.

In fact, it’s the experience of being met by a blind eye for 10 years, twiddling thumbs as Ryan Gosling mops up the applause, that lends Isaac’s performance its oomph. He is now hot property for playing someone who isn’t; the strummer with soul but no sales, the man who wasn’t Bob Dylan. Llewyn rattles round Manhattan, sucking up his persistent bad luck with groggy resignation. He kips on couches and loses somebody’s cat. He signs away royalty rights on a novelty record so he can fund the termination of a pregnancy for which he may not be responsible. And, sometimes, he takes the stage at the Gaslight with earnest ballads, fishermen laments, hymns to the middle ages. He’s good. But he probably isn’t quite good enough.

“The irony hasn’t been lost on me,” Isaac smiles. “Being celebrated for playing someone who wasn’t. Llewyn is like the Jesus character who had to be sacrificed for our sins. I get quite emotional about it. It’s hard not sounding like a douchebag because it’s like: ‘Oh, I’ve been so successful for those poor people that haven’t.’ But I know those people; it could have easily just gone the other way for me too. There’s very few people – like Shakespeare – who, no matter what, were gonna do what they did. For the rest of us there’s a lot of events that have to happen in order for things to end up the way they are. The celebration of that can allow me to relax in all of this.” “The whole story is about a guy who never gets there,” says T Bone Burnett, who oversaw the score with Marcus Mumford and Justin Timberlake. “And yet the actual person who’s playing that guy, does it. He seizes that minute like a motherfucker.” MORE