Doris Lessing has described how she imagines herself ‘standing in for all the other writers who work so hard and who don’t win prizes’. This is the first thing i thought of after watching the new Coen Brothers’ offering.
I shall explain myself.
First though, some other random thoughts.
Coming to a foreign land without a map or guide – that’s how i came to Inside Llewyn Davis. The film then became a riddle to be solved, an invitation to use one’s ‘little grey cells’; with the Brothers offering clues but never the whole story, and never ever answering the question What it is About.
How to go about it then, ‘reading’ a film? I start with the obvious – the title.
And Inside Llewyn Davis, well, obviously, invites me to look inside the character, tells me that there is more to Llewyn Davis than meets the eye.
The Brothers make it at once easy and challenging to look inside Llewyn.
The camera lingers on his face, with more close-ups than usually in their films. There is no intricate camera work, no elaborate settings, no distorting lenses. And yet. What we are confronted with is the deadpan face of a man who doesn’t give away very much at all.
Eventually, in the effort to understand what takes place behind the words he speaks, and regardless of other characters’ views of him, i found myself providing – making up, i suppose – the inside of Llewyn Davis.
This is what i imagined.
Behind his sombre face, i saw the pain of a loss, much deeper than he will let on.
Consider this. Two brothers, and as close creative partners as the Coens, present one half of a duo who lost his other half to suicide. No matter how many bad jokes this seems to inspire in others, for Llewyn it has to be serious.
Indeed when his hopes for a lucky break are shattered, followed with the well-meant suggestion he should join up again with his partner, ‘This is good advice’, Llewyn answers; in what sounds like a private joke on his own suicidal thoughts. It is, it seems, this grief inside Llewyn Davis that creates his gloomy disposition, his often painful frankness, his tough luck, the (often commented upon, but not quite identified) overall melancholic mood of the film.
Another way to see inside Llewyn, are his songs. There are several hints to this, including the line ‘Play me something from Inside Llewyn Davis’, which can be read in two different ways. It is only when he sings that he becomes, well, alive, fully present. And he is probably the most talented of the lot. His heart-rendering Hang Me, Oh Hang Me (note the suicide theme, there from the very beginning); The Death of Queen Jane (sure enough, there can’t be much money in this); the Shoals of Herring that moves his absent-minded father (though not quite to tears), shine a dark light that matches his disposition, and captivate his audience, both on- and off-screen.
And so, hoping for that lucky break, Llewyn sings his way ‘all around this world’. His Odyssey makes allusions to both Homer’s original and James Joyce’s modern version. The seaman’s life – to which he may or may not return -; a woman far away – a Penelope – who has given birth to his child; his own life as a wandering troubadour, all hint at the Odyssey, which in Homer’s days was practically a long ballad. Then there is his Irish name, and his travelling companion, the ginger wandering cat that goes by the name of Ulysses.
(There is also an inside joke here. A not-quite-likeable character, so the theory goes, can be redeemed by a single act of goodwill, a so-called Save-the-Cat moment. Llewyn gets plenty of opportunities to literally save a cat, and he so eagerly takes them all – all but one, to be precise -, he even saves the wrong cat.)
His luck, however, begins and ends with saving that cat. However much talent, sincerity, integrity, hard work he may put in, Llewyn won’t get his break. His lot is to prepare the ground for, say, Bob Dylan, who is glimpsed performing at the Gaslight Café just before the last scene. Who, however, doesn’t by any means stand out. It is only with hindsight that we recognise this young songwriter in the background. More than anything, it seems to be a happy twist of fate, a matter of right-place right-time, that distinguishes him from Llewyn.
So, back to Doris Lessing. Like Lessing, the Coens, Dylan, all those who have our attention and our respect, are the gifted and fortunate ones, the success stories, the winners. Llewyn Davis is the Brothers’ ballad for those ‘who work so hard and who don’t win’. Does that make him a loser? Well, funnily enough, not anymore – for now he is a hero.
Anyway, this is how i saw it.