It’s November, which means Leiden gets to play host to its very own ‘International’ Film Festival (LIFF). The festival is relatively small, but they usually have a pretty cool selection, most likely a direct result of their professed interest in ‘the border between art-house and mainstream cinema’. Which is nice, since that particular ‘area’ offers a degree of focus and production value that’s rare for the cheap stuff, while retaining some of the depth that is often lost in bigger pictures. The Coen Brothers’ latest film Inside Llewyn Davis fits that description neatly and it’s also one of the headliners for this year’s event. It was my first pick for the week (I’m also seeing Blood Ties and Captain Philips tonight and tomorrow evening) and despite my ‘take it or leave it’ attitude towards (most) folk music, I had a great time with it.
Inside Llewyn Davis chronicles a week in the life of, you’ve guessed it, down on his luck musician Llewyn Davis. Davis is played by Oscar Isaac, whom I was already familiar with from Refn’s Drive (2011). In what probably isn’t a coincidence, that film also paired him with Carey Mulligan who plays Davis’ former lover Jean, though she’s just one of many characters Isaac comes across during (t)his week in 1961. Isaac is something of a vagrant (depicted nicely when he wakes up on the couch in a house that is obviously too nice for a man of his non-existent means) and, I guess, a couch surfer ‘avant la lettre’ – thanks, Koosje – if you want to put it less pejoratively. When he sets out to seek the next refuge from the freezing New York winter he is inadvertently joined by a red tabby named ‘Ulysses’. They don’t reveal that particular bit of information (the name) until much later in the film, but you can see where this is going (it also elicits a fitting reaction from Isaac). The implications of that are later echoed by a movie poster Isaac drifts past somewhere near the end of the film.
Now, what I appreciate most about this film is that it basically shows us a not-so-grand journey to absolutely nowhere. Contrary to the romantic image conjured up by the likes of Kerouac (or the film rather), this story conveys the more melancholic and surreal feeling one expects from the deserted streets and empty bars Isaac wanders through. There are some suggestions that Isaac’s situation is a result of poor decision making or the fact he’s a difficult person to live with. Mulligan, for instance, refers to Isaac as ‘King Midas’ idiot brother’, everything he touches turns to shit. Though the truth is much harder to accept: it’s just the arbitrary nature of a universe that is ultimately indifferent to his talent and ambition. That much is clear when Isaac’s final, and beautiful, performance is set against the appearance of the guy that did make it.