Inside Llewyn Davis

What do you live for? Does this question matter?

Llewyn Davis’s whole life is a lived answer to these questions. It is the icy cold winter of New York in 1961, and Llewyn doesn’t have a place to live in. He spends the night on the couch of one ‘friend’ or another. He spends the day walking the streets of Greenwich Village, going from pub to pub, to ask if someone would hire him as a performer. He doesn’t say much, but when he picks up his guitar and sings his song, he comes alive.

Llewyn doesn’t give a damn for how other people live. He has complete disdain for his sister, whose house he selfishly uses as the last resort for the night when he can go nowhere else. For him, she “just exists”, like most people, walking but dead inside, living because they are supposed to, doing what they are doing because they are here and have nowhere else to go, like a football kicked and not stopped by friction.

For Llewyn, music is all there is. Even as other musicians sing popular songs, try to play to the gallery, and dream of making it big one day, the penniless Llewyn looks on in contempt at them for being unauthentic, for being square pegs. “You’ve gone square,” he tells Jean, a singer who feels both tenderness and rage at him, and whose primary goal is to make money and settle down into a comfortable life in the suburbs with her boyfriend. Llewyn, on the other hand, is a real troubadour, singing his heart out, not a care for whether others like it or not.

When a friend asks him to sing a song at the dinner table, Llewyn tries, but then stops mid-way in disgust. “This is my profession,” he says angrily, this isn’t dinner table banter. He can’t imagine how the work he feels so deeply for can be seen by someone as entertainment on a light evening. Apologising for his sudden outburst, Llewyn leaves the house.

llewn davis

He can be very rude, as he is to those who take music as a vehicle for popularity, acclaim, or just fun. He can be immoral, as he is when he sleeps with a woman who has another man in her life. He can be ungrateful, as he is to those who appreciate his idealism and let him sleep on their couch.

In his darker moments, he can doubt himself and tell Jean, “I’m tired of living like this”. He wonders if the life he has chosen – or the life that has chosen him – is worth it. He lets out his frustration by shouting down a woman performing poorly on stage. But soon enough, as if he cannot help being who he is, Llewyn is back to being indifferent, because all that matters is music. So he walks on to the next audition, his cat in his arm, possibly the only living being he really cares for.

And Llewyn’s life continues. Penniless, aloof, without any real friends, but feeling deeply for what his considers his calling – a life in music, Llewyn Davis sings as the credits roll. We don’t know if he will ever manage to make a living as a musician, leave alone make it big. For Llewyn, that is the wrong question to ask. Like most things, it doesn’t matter.

The latest Coen brothers film, winner of the Cannes Grand Prix 2013, is a densely atmospheric experience of what it is to be Llewyn Davis. The title Inside Llewyn Davis conveys the essence of the film perfectly – experiencing seven days in the life of one man. Without any gimmicks, any attempts at entertaining us, the film takes us deep into the soul of this wandering musician, making us experience all his passion, all his languidness, all his ugliness and all his struggle. At times the film moves slowly, but that is Llewyn’s life, slow and uneventful. Visually, most of the film is dark and desolate, and that is a reflection of how Llewyn feels inside. Musically, it conveys all his implosive intensity. We become him for a while, and we may or may not like it, depending on who we are – on what our answer to those questions on top is. I, for one, felt bad for Llewyn but even more, felt bad for myself for not having the kind of quiet passion he breathes day and night, for being a pale shadow of him.

An ode to folk music, to art, to the wandering spirit, to homelessness, to living for what you believe in, to not giving a damn.

~ by tdcatss on January 19, 2014.

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