Rather than write a review of the Cohen brothers’ newest film, Inside Llewyn Davis, I’m merely going to offer some general thoughts in response to it. They likely won’t mean much to you if you haven’t seen the movie, and they necessarily contain some plot spoilers. So if you haven’t yet seen it, please move along and come back when you have. And you should see it. It’s a thought-provoking, darkly-humorous and beautifully-filmed reflection on life and art that accomplishes that rare feat of marrying artistic idealism with down-to-earth enjoyability — an ironic achievement given the subject matter.
Llewyn Davis isn’t a likeable guy. He’s a self-absorbed, self-important jerk who doesn’t seem to care about much of anything — even his music. When Llewyn’s asked to play something from “Inside Llewyn Davis” — his solo album — he doesn’t play something from inside himself, he plays “The Death of Queen Jane,” a historical ballad utterly disconnected from Llewyn’s life. He performs it well, but it’s a safe performance — it reveals nothing about what truly may be inside him. Llewyn won’t open himself up though his music. He’s a professional, it’s his job, so he remains unencumbered by the joy of musical expression.
We see those around Llewyn making artistic concessions, making sacrifices for their art. Jim’s “Please Mr. Kennedy” isn’t a musical milestone, but it makes people smile and brings in money. Jean is apparently sleeping her way to success. Troy Nelson is relying on his wholesome image and earnest demeanor to gain a following. Llewyn isn’t willing to make concessions to his personal artistic integrity. But does he even have artistic integrity? Does he have an artistic vision? Perhaps that vision vanished off the George Washington bridge and Llewyn is now left empty, possessed of talent and bitterness and little more.
Llewyn’s life is indeed circular, traveling from couch to couch, gig to gig, woman to woman, seemingly without progress. His attempts to break out of that cycle are met with failure. He’s continually forced down the almost impossibly narrow hallways of life and given no choice about which door to take. But in the end, does it really matter which door he takes? He seems likely to squander whatever opportunities await him.
Though his is certainly a bleak existence — and despite his protestations, he is existing — there are nevertheless two glimmers of hope in the ending of the film. First, he doesn’t let the cat escape. He’s learned from his earlier mistake. Learned what? We don’t really know, perhaps it is only an acceptance to live with the way things are rather than with the discontentment of always seeking more. Second, in our brief glimpse of a young Dylan on the brink of stardom, we see someone who will break out the everyday, who will go on to something greater. Not every struggling artist is Llewyn.
This leaves me wondering: what place does average art have in society? Should we reward mere competence? We’re willing to overlook the character flaws of those with artistic genius, but what about the flaws in those with mere artistic competence? We’re willing to reward those who exhibit a true artistic vision as well as those who are willing to ride the art-of-the-moment for a quick buck. But what about those who fall in between those two extremes? What about the Llewyn Davises of the world who make good, but not great art, who are always searching for more but who are always coming up short?
Finally, I think it’s worth nothing that the Cohen’s make direct reference to Breakfast at Tiffany’s in the form of a nameless marmalade cat. Two scenes in particular are almost direct recreations from that earlier film. The similarities were striking enough that I wonder if it’s possibly the same cat. Both films are set in the same time and location — perhaps while on hiatus from the Gorfein’s, Ulysses paid a visit to Holly Golightly, seeking to provide her the artistic and spiritual guidance that remains so elusive to Llewyn.
πάντα χωρεῖ καὶ οὐδὲν μένει
Everything changes and nothing remains still
— Plato, Cratylus