Thursday 16 January 2014
For 30 years, Joel and Ethan Coen have been fond of failure. On trashing plans and turning hopes belly-up. On folks coming face to face with fate, then fate socking them round the chops and burying them alive in their own backyard.
Thirty years in which the Coens themselves have been endlessly, remorselessly successful: showered with respect and love and awards. The morning after the premiere of their new film, they seem close to untouchable. Cannes has always had a thing for woe-bros (see also the Dardennes) but right now the intensity of its crush makes you giddy.
Inside Llewyn Davis, though, is another sad epic of dud luck. A Jenga tower of hard knocks that takes its hero (a folkie in 1961 Greenwich Village), piles pain upon pain upon him, then hangs him out to dry. Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) starts out homeless and bereaved and goes downhill from there.
"It's more interesting for me as an audience member to see a movie about a loser," says Ethan. "Who wants to make a movie about Elvis, y'know? Or – well, it'd be a very different kind of movie."
Llewyn is the man who isn't Elvis, or, more accurately, the man who wasn't Bob Dylan (he's loosely based on Dave Van Ronk). He has talent but not genius. He needs either a lucky break or to accept defeat. His tragedy is to keep trying, even as his hunger is eaten away.
It's not a movie nostalgic about the early days of an artist. "Oh no," says Ethan. "To not be starting out is fucking great. There's a lot of anxiety associated with that."
What about the worry of keeping it up? "No, not really, I can't think of a lot of downsides. No, things get a little easier."
Joel, kind behind dolefulness, isn't sure: "But they also get more like a job. When you're starting out the first time everything is new and stimulating. And that's the experience you're never going to recapture, so it's all downhill in a sense. You learn stuff, you mix it up, but it'll never not be a job."
And how does that make you feel?
"Well, not great. But I'm resigned to it."
Ethan chips in. "There would be something sad about being old and still having to do that thing. But then there's something sad about everything. So: what the fuck!"
Talking to the Coens can feel like speaking to one polite hybrid brother, and, at other times, like talking to a whole host of them. Ethan – who does the bulk of the scriptwriting – turns out to have a habit of conducting conversations, back and forth, within his own answers. At 56, he's the younger and reedier, voice amiably strained, posture slightly similar. Joel, 59, long and lugubrious, sounds like a clarinet and acts like a sax. They reply in sync, a united front. Even subconsciously, the presence of the other seems to police the hymn sheet.
Yet in some ways Inside Llewyn Davis feels like nothing so much as a Coen brothers film – a movie one of them might make after the other had died, or, at least, they'd been irreparably separated. Its aesthetic is drenched in melancholy; film stock so washed-out that it feels as it it's grieving. The story is haunted by a ghost – Llewyn's former musical partner, Mike, who threw himself off a bridge (we never learn why) – leaving our hero struggling to reinvent himself as a solo act.
But no, they say, it isn't a hymn to the creative collaboration. Yes, they liked the idea of a man who wasn't there, but that's not what they cared about. "It was just more baggage for him to schlep around," says Ethan.
"Yeah," says Joel, "we gave him a lot of crosses to bear."
Ethan continues: "The movie is about how everything's hard for him. Why is it hard? Is it something in him? Yeah, partly, certainly. At least partly. Wholly? Partly? I dunno."
What makes Llewyn likable is his precarious mix of self-belief and self-loathing; a whipping boy resigned to polishing other people's ammo. People forever tell him he's an asshole; he chimes in with agreement.
Says Ethan: "We wanted a nice dick. We wanted that tension: kind of is, kind of isn't, kind of is …" Joel: "He's the guy who blows his top or speaks out of turn or says something really dickish, but then, three minutes later thinks to himself: I'm a dick for doing that. Some dicks are just not self-aware."
It's curious, I say, that artists only have a free pass to behave that way once they're successful. They nod. Then I wonder if Llewyn's scepticism about the folk scene – with all its phoney artisan stylings – was meant to reflect that of a modern audience. His songs hark back to the reign of Henry VIII, but his gaze is almost 21st-century.
There's a pause and the temperature drops. Ethan bristles a bit.
"Through our eyes? Eeee-wy. Contemporary eyes? Our eyes? Is he? He has a kind of jaundiced eye, but in my mind that's just a kind of professional disdain for a lot of his colleagues, like a lot of real professionals have – do you know what I mean?"
Joel harmonises backup: "He has a very particular taste; he thinks that the pop aspect of that song they sing in the studios [a novelty record called Please Mr Kennedy] is a little bit inane. But I don't see that as being anachronistic to the period."
In fact, Llewyn has more genuine empathy with the lyrics he's singing than many of his peers. He is a bona fide hobo, water streaming from his shoes. And, unlike the Irish folk quartet who take to the stage at the Gaslight club in immaculate fishermen's jerseys and warble about trawling, Llewyn was actually in the merchant navy.
Such eager devotion to authenticity, says Ethan, "was a mark of that specific scene … and the seriousness and piousness that went with it. I'm sure they did consider themselves folklorists trying to preserve a tradition. More than that specifically, it's kind of a hallmark of the period – against convention, not wanting to sell out, not wanting to be bourgeois."
These days, he continues: "The whole authenticity versus compromise question just seems unasked. It isn't even an issue now, strangely."
And is that a good thing?
"I don't know. Is it?"
Probably not; it sounds bad.
"Maybe the question is: does it matter?"
Well, a bit. The reason the Coens suggest that some artists in that scene foundered while others became superstars is that they adhered rather than innovated. "Bob Dylan came along and did different things," says Joel. "He was vilified for it because he wasn't authentic, but in fact he did respect the folk traditions. He also felt free to do what he wanted with them."
The Coens kicked off their own career giving a bloody spin to crime noir, before larkily ruffling the feathers of a variety of genres. Lately, though, there has been a change. The comeuppance their characters face does not have to have a cause. Life is just like that.
Llewyn's closest cousin is the hero of A Serious Man, whose descent into the abyss ended only in abrupt apocalypse. That film was their most biblical in terms of sheer misery (it was based on the Book of Job), and their most autobiographical in terms of setting (Jewish households in 60s Minnesota). Inside Llewyn Davis may unfold in a more apparently glam location, a little further east, but it has the same DNA, the same doomy drive. The same focus on psychological catastrophe, rather than violent assault.
This, perhaps, is why the Coens needed to be pushing 60 before making it. It's a movie whose jaundice comes from its makers having spent three decades at the top of their trade, the scales well and truly fallen from their eyes. It romanticises neither the artist's vocation nor the realities of showbiz. In one scene near the start, Llewyn watches from the audience at the Gaslight as Jean (Carey Mulligan), with whom he's in love, performs a ballad with her husband, Jim (Justin Timberlake).
The club's manager joins him. "That Jean," he says, taking a seat. "I'd like to fuck her." He later explains how a lot of the punters have coughed up following the same impulse.
What the Coens care about is what star wattage actually amounts to, and who fixes the wiring behind it. Today, on top of the world, what animates them most is discussing early 60s venue loopholes – not needing a liquor licence for gigs on account of being able to pack the place with high-school kids; getting a cheaper cabaret licence so long as you don't have more than three performers on stage.
"And that's tailor-made for folk," says Joel, delighted. "And, well, this group works better because they've got this cute girl – that's his theory – and they all want to come in and fuck her. Right?" They both smile.
Outside, Cannes continues. Within, the Coens keep cooking up beautiful movies to undercut it.
Inside Llewyn Davis is released on 24 January