Cannes: The Coen Brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis

Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan in Inside Llewyn Davis.
Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan in Inside Llewyn Davis.

I. First, Something About the Badges (Then We'll Get to the Coens)

Someday I'm going to write a song and call it "Ballad of the Blue Badge." I haven't figured out a rhyme scheme yet, let alone a melody, so please allow this outline to suffice: At Cannes, the color of your badge determines the ease with which you're able to gain entry to any of the 1,001 screenings taking place at any time. For members of the press, the most desirable badges are white (which allow you to sit at the right hand of God after you die, among other benefits) and rose (the badge I receive, which will get you into pretty much anything you might need to see and even some things you really don't want to see).

And then there's the blue badge. (There are actually colors lower on the badge hierarchy, but the alliterative quality isn't as good.) The blue badge is the one assigned to journalists and critics who work for lesser-known websites or publications, or to writers affiliated with an organization that needs to send a number of people to the festival. The blue badge isn't horrible. But it requires that you wait in a lower-priority line for all screenings, which means that you might get shut out. At the packed screening of the Coen Brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis on Saturday night, a young colleague and his friend just squeaked in, grabbing the last two seats in the house. Many others were left out, on a miserable rainy night fit for neither man nor chien andalou.

Many of the blue-badge-holders are younger writers, and quite a few of them have paid their own way just to be here—and this is hardly a cheap place to be, even if you get a pile of friends together and shoehorn yourselves into a flat 40 minutes away from the action. Anyone out there who thinks Cannes is all parties, glamour, and elaborate meals paid for by studio moguls should come on a rainy day and have a look at the sad faces in the blue badge line.

Today at my favorite crêpe place—where you can get an omelette and a glass of wine for 10 euro, which is just about my speed—I sat next to two very nice young blue badge women from Russia. Both had their laptops open and were typing away, fueling their brains with cigarettes and large cups of coffee. When my omelette came, they looked at it longingly, and one said something to the other in Russian. There's just something about seeing that damn blue badge that brings out the den mother in me. "Don't just drink coffee—it's important to eat, too!" I said to them, and they laughed and went back to their computers. But one of them did ask to see a menu, and she ordered something to eat just as I was leaving. Her story, it seemed, was mostly done.

II. Now, for the Coen Brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis

You won't find anything like "Ballad of the Blue Badge" in the Coen Brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis. The music in this marvelous, surreptitiously soulful movie, about a gifted but unlikable folk singer in early 1960s New York, was supervised by T. Bone Burnett, who really knows his way around a ballad. Oscar Isaac plays Llewyn Davis, the remaining half of a semi-successful folk-singing duo who's trying to make it on his own. Llewyn can definitely sing (and Isaac can, too), but the material he chooses leans toward traditional weepers about mourning dead lovers. At one point F. Murray Abraham, as a goateed club owner and manager Llewyn aspires to work with—he's got Mitch Miller's facial hair but Jerry Wexler's grooviness—has a listen. He appears visibly moved by Llewyn's somber, smoke-and-honey delivery. He waits a beat, then lofts one of the funniest lines in a mordantly funny movie.

Isaac's Llewyn is devastatingly handsome, but also something of a horror show. He's able to land only the tiniest gigs in folk clubs (and in the movie's opening scene, he gets beaten up in the alley behind one, for reasons that aren't clear until the end). He has nowhere to live and crashes in the apartments of anyone who will have him, and even some who won't. And he has an extremely contentious relationship with a fellow folk singer on the scene, played by Carey Mulligan; she need only lay eyes on him before cutting him dead with a withering look—she takes just like a woman, yes she does.

Inside Llewyn Davis also features one of the finest marmalade-cat performances seen onscreen since The Long Goodbye. (Technically, we're talking about several cats, but let's look the other way for the sake of movie magic.) And although the Coens are always consummate craftsmen, they don't always show the lightness of touch, or the depth of feeling, they do here. Llewyn is suffering, and despite his bad behavior, we can't turn away from him, though it's also impossible not to laugh at his terrible misadventures. Intentionally or otherwise, the Coens might be channeling the Hal Ashby of The Landlord, or Next Stop, Greenwich Village-era Paul Mazursky. Whatever they're doing, it's remarkable—cockeyed humanism at its best.

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