Cannes Check 2013: Joel and Ethan Coen's 'Inside Llewyn Davis'

Posted by · 4:31 pm · April 24th, 2013

(Welcome to Cannes Check, your annual guide through the 19 films in Competition at next month’s Cannes Film Festival, which kicks off on May 15. Taking on a different selection every day, we’ll be examining what they’re about, who’s involved and what their chances are of snagging an award from Steven Spielberg’s jury. We’re going through the list by director and in alphabetical order — next up, Joel and Ethan Coen with “Inside Llewyn Davis.”)

The directors: Joel Coen (American, 58 years old) and Ethan Coen (55 years old). You may have heard of them. Cinema’s most famous fraternal filmmaking duo have made 16 features in 29 years, though only started billing themselves as co-directors with 2004’s “The Ladykillers.” Joel previously took the directing credit, Ethan the producing one, though their roles have never been separable — they also write and edit their own work. Indie darlings from the get-go, they’ve successfully moved further into the mainstream whilst maintaining their auteur cachet: their last film, the 2010 period western “True Grit,” received 10 Oscar nominations and, with over $170 million domestically, was by far the highest grosser of their career. Their most recent credit, however, is something of an anomaly on their CV: the screenplay for flop comedy remake “Gambit,” in which they had no directorial involvement.

The talent: The Coens have recently had a habit of mixing A-list stars with veterans and up-and-comers alike, and so it is with “Inside Llewyn Davis.”  33 year-old, Guatemalan-born actor Oscar Isaac turned a few heads in “Drive,” endured the embarrassment of “W.E.,” and here gets his first big shot at leading-man status. Carey Mulligan, Isaac’s onscreen wife in “Drive,” is cast as his apparent love interest; between this and Cannes opener “The Great Gatsby,” she’s set to be one of the faces of the festival. Justin Timberlake and Garrett Hedlund — last seen topping the charts and stealing “On the Road,” respectively — fill out an unusually large young-and-beautiful contingent for a Coen Brothers joint. Oscar-winning character actor F. Murray Abraham is also on board, as is the resurgent John Goodman — a former Coens regular making his first film with the brothers since 2000’s “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

Behind the camera, the brothers are on their usual directing-writing-producing-editing duty, editing under their regular pseudonym of Roderick Jaynes and producing with Scott Rudin, who also teamed up with them on “No Country for Old Men” and “True Grit.” Their regular production designer Jess Gonchor and costume designer Mary Zophres are providing the 1960s trimmings, though their favorite cinematographer, Roger Deakins, is sitting this one out. Don’t despair, however: three-time Oscar nominee Bruno Delbonnel (“Amelie,” “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”) is evidently keeping things pretty with his trademark verdigris finish. Perhaps most crucially, given the nature of the story, the music is being handled by rootsy super-producer T Bone Burnett (who made the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack a crossover phenomenon), in collaboration with Grammy-winning Mumford & Sons frontman Marcus Mumford (aka Mr. Carey Mulligan).

The pitch: Yet another period piece for the Coens, as they turn to a different end of the decade they explored so evocatively in 2009’s “A Serious Man.” Set over a two-week period in 1961, “Inside Llewyn Davis” examines New York City’s burgeoning folk-rock scene of the time, and is a reportedly loose adaptation of folk musician Dave Van Ronk’s memoir “The Mayor of MacDougal Street.” Following the personal and professional travails of aspiring Dylan-esque singer-songwriter Llewyn Davis (Isaac) as he tries to gain traction on the scene, the film is — according to Ethan Coen, at least — less plot-driven than usual for the brothers. There’s a strong emphasis on full-length musical performances, with Isaac, Mulligan and (of course) Timberlake all showing off their singing chops. Shot with no distributor attached (CBS Films has since taken it on), the film promises a return to small-scale niche fare after the unexpected blockbuster success of “True Grit.”

The pedigree: Formidable. Long before the Coens morphed into consensus Great American Filmmakers, bedecked with Oscars and box office glory, Cannes had latched onto their odd genius. In 1987, they made their Cannes debut out of competition with their second film, “Raising Arizona”; since then, they’ve competed for the Palme d’Or eight times. “Barton Fink” won them the big prize on their very first attempt in 1991, also earning the elder Coen Best Director honors. He has since won the latter award twice more, for “Fargo” (1996) and “The Man Who Wasn’t There” (2001), making him the only three-time winner in the category. Away from the festival beat, of course, there have been four Oscars, including Best Picture for “No Country for Old Men” — which happens to be the last film they took to Cannes. 

The buzz: For some time, the film was unusually off-the-radar for a Coen Brothers project, which probably had much to do with its distributor-free production — it was financed by French company StudioCanal. The New York Times reported that the film could have been ready in time for an Oscar run last year; instead, the Coens chose to edit it “at their own pace” and hang on for a Cannes berth, which suggests quiet confidence in a film hardly expected to match the crossover success of much of their recent work. Whispers from early screenings suggest a low-key charmer, while the first trailer, which hit the web a couple of months ago, is rather beguiling. The softly-softly approach may well pay off with this one — and even if it doesn’t, expect the soundtrack to be a wow.

The odds: With one Palme d’Or and three Best Director awards to their name, the Coens have been so frequently honored at the festival that they may well have entered Hall of Fame status: Cannes will keep inviting them back, but there’s no urgent need to reward them. Stephen Frears, jury president in 2007, implied as much when explaining why future Oscar champ “No Country for Old Men” won nothing from them, saying they knew the film was going to do well elsewhere without any help from them. With the film not seeming to break significant new ground for the pair, something tells me Spielberg’s crew might feel the same way; Cannes oddsmaker Neil Young agrees, pegging it at 22-1 for the Palme.

The premiere date: Sunday, May 19.

Check back in tomorrow, when we’ll be sizing up Arnaud des Pallières’s “Michael Kohlhaas.”

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