The tale of the unlucky fictional New York City folk singer of the 1960s Llewyn Davis looks like perfect Coen brothers fodder on paper: another of their takes on the unfathomable small cruelties of daily life a sad, misfit-loser hero must confront. Yet, following a pattern that has been mellowed by age (think their remake of True Grit), Inside Llewyn Davis tempers the siblings' wry, deadpan humour with a more empathetic, understanding tone, probably because the focus of their attention here was already so self-important to begin with.

     Much has been made, since Inside Llewyn Davis was unveiled at Cannes 2013, that this would be the folk equivalent of the brothers' wildly popular O Brother, Where Art Thou?, their smart, country and bluegrass-inflected retelling of the Odyssey in the Depression-era South; there's even a ginger tabby cat called Ulysses. But it's a decoy; the new film has a melancholy tone underlined by Bruno Delbonnel's frosty, wintry palette and Oscar Isaac's soulful performance as the titular Llewyn Davis, an also-ran folk singer whose attempt to get out of a rut eventually leads him to question what he's doing with his life, stuck as he is in a sort of Groundhog Day loop of endlessly similar days.

     Set during the folk revival centred around Greenwich Village a mythical but not unduly or overly mythologized past -, and suggested and inspired by true-life figures (notably the "father figure" and "backseat driver" of the scene that was the late Dave van Ronk), Inside Llewyn Davis is all fictional though, and yet remarkably faithful to the reality of struggling artists, confronted with the encroaching step of consumer society, and whether their commitment to art leads anywhere. Their hero is painted as a beautiful loser forced by the world around him, but also by his own failings and all too human shortcomings, to keep on rolling the boulder up the hill, like a Prometheus fated to fail for being - quote unquote - "king Midas' idiot brother". It's one of the Coen's less scathing, more lucid and entertaining, and more affecting films - one where nothing seems to happen but an accumulation of incident that seems slender as a plot line yet transports so much feeling and meaning throughout.

Cast: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, F. Murray Abraham, Justin Timberlake
Directors, screenwriters and (under the alias Roderick Jaynes) editors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Cinematography: Bruno Delbonnel  (colour)
Musical director: T-Bone Burnett
Designer: Jess Gonchor
Costumes: Mary Zophres
Producers: Scott Rudin, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen  (Studiocanal and Mike Zoss Productions in association with Anton Capital Entertainment)
France/United Kingdom/USA, 2012, 105 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon, December 10th 2013

Nominated for two 2013 Academy Awards (Best Cinematography; Best Sound Mixing)


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