Music, like cinema, can be tricky because it is both art and a commercial product. Things can become stuck between the two areas, or lost in limbo. This seems to be where the title character of Inside Llewyn Davis resides, trying to support himself financially, while not wanting to compromise his art. There is a pattern in the film of a moving musical performance being followed by what feels like an inappropriate response.
Perhaps it’s fitting that the film garnered so few Oscar nominations. It’s a beautifully made film that takes place in an unglamorous time, about a largely interior journey. The Coens deserve an Oscar nomination for Best Direction, and the film deserves a Best Picture nomination, but it will have to settle for Best Cinematography and Best Sound Mixing.
Llewyn is an idealist, an artist in a world where most have alternate motives. After a moving private performance by Llewyn, a potential manager states, “I don’t see a lot of money in this.” During a performance by Jean and others at the famed Gaslight, the venue manager crudely states, “I want to fuck Jean.” Meanwhile the fun, kitchy, but emotionally empty song, Please Mr. Kennedy, is expected to be a big hit.
The film effectively charts Llewyn’s emotional journey by showing only external interactions. He says very little about he feels, so we know only how he interacts with other people and the Gorfein’s cat, and how it reflects his inner state. The music also powerfully conveys a lot.
The film begins with the last scene of the film. It isn’t clear that this is so until we come to that scene again, this time extended. We know that in some ways Llewyn has come to terms with his singing partner’s death, and with his place in the world as well. This bookending also conveys the idea of patterns in our lives that bring us back to the same metaphoric spot again and again, not so much circles as spirals. We don’t end up exactly where we’ve been before, but close enough that we can gauge our inner growth by the similarity of external circumstances.
We can see how far Llewyn has come despite being in exactly the same place. Also, that repeated scene acts like the chorus to a song, the part we return to and yet understand better as the song progresses.