If a person has no love for himself, no respect for himself, no love of his friends, family, work, something... How can he ask for love in return?
– Five Easy Pieces
If you’ve seen the Coen brother’s lovely tragicomedy Inside Llewyn Davis you’ll know that the titular hero has issues of the deep seated sort. Existential woes if you will.
For one he is a folk musician who hates folk music. That’s what he says, anyway. What Llewyn probably means is that he hates the goody folk attitude, the dreamy look that comes with the frothy ballad, sung by dudes in Christmas-y sweaters.
His singing partner committed suicide for reasons that don’t exactly come clear, a topic rarely breached by Llewyn and not reacted to well at all when spoken about by others.
He is talented without having had his breakthrough. Nor will he ever have that breakthough. Make no mistake: He wants to be successful for sure even taking on a hellish trip to Chicago to meet famed record produced Bud Grossman. For the audition, his possible big break, he chooses 'The Death of Queen Jane', a beautiful, incredibly sad ballad. It’s also as uncommercial a song as they come.
Why does he do it? Well, Grossman asks him to play something from 'Inside Llewyn Davis' which is the name of his album. And that’s very much what he does, torpedoing his own efforts while baring his soul.
Of course he has girl troubles too, having impregnated Jean (Carey Mulligan) whose as good as married to Gene (Justin Timberlake) with whom he is on friendly terms. Llewyn has to subsequently suffer deluges of verbal abuse from Jean who insists on having an abortion.
In her eyes he deserves exactly what’s coming to him.
What Llewyn Davis has coming is a resounding unhappiness, starkly and movingly perceivable in the eyes of . It’s – and I know we’re entering the swampy ground of interpretation here – the realization of being utterly alone, and not being able to have a meaningful connection to anyone or anything.
But neither Llewyn Davis' problems, nor the actor’s bloodshed eyes are something new. They have been around some time in life as well as in film.
In fact Llewyn Davis existential woes seemed strangely familiar when I saw the film, reminding me of two other anti-heroes out of that musty vault called cinema history.
Three men and one problem
Robert Eroica Dupea, as played by a young, vibrant Jack Nicholsen, is a gifted pianist, coming from a family of musical geniuses. You wouldn’t know that at the beginning of Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces, though. Here, we find our hero works at an oil drill in the middle of nowhere. In his spare time he goes bowling and treats his loving but stupid girlfriend Rayette like shit.
Maurice Ronet is Alain Leroy. I don’t just mean that the French actor plays a character called Alain Leroy in Louis Malle’s Le feu follet. I just refuse to believe that you can fake the utter emptiness of soul that Ronet dares you to stare in during the 108 minutes of the drama. Alain, just out of rehab, is visiting old friends in Paris. He belonged to the circle of the surrealists once who painted the town red. But the friends he is visiting now are a disparate bunch, belonging to all sort of different circles, different classes. There is a bohemian painter, two political activists, a nonchalant bourgeois…
Alain seems to have aspired to be a writer once, now he only aspires to be dead. Those visits are really farewells as he wants to commit suicide the next day.
Llewyn Davis we already met. He's different than Bobby and Alain because he clearly has a vocation, something he loves doing.
But all three men, who not incidentally are all in their 30s, live in emotional exile: They can neither connect to their contemporaries in emotional ways, nor can they connect to any of their projects.
It's a dark, dark place those three inhabit and I still find it flabbergasting that the Coens managed to get a comedy with a hero like that.
The cult of authenticity
Your typical coming of age drama usually has two broadly defined defense lines: there is the world of grown-ups which our young hero experiences as hypocritical, with false values believed in by no one. Then there are the values of our young hero. Whatever they may be specifically, they have one advantage over the ones of his or her parent’s: they are authentic. They may be too harsh, or just plain wrong – but they are honest about them. Igby Goes Down, Almost Famous, The Kings of Summer, Ginger & Rosa etc. and countless others all take place between those two trenches.
It’s easy to imagine the coming of age movie centering on Bobby or Alain or Llewyn. They must have experienced the world much like Igby and co., rebelling against their parents, contemporaries and everybody else. If you’d ask the Coens, Bob Rafelson and the late Louis Malle I am sure they would present you backstories riddled with revolt. In fact both Inside Llewyn Davis and Five Easy Pieces feature very similar scenes in which the protagonists confront/try to make peace with their fathers.
It’s significant that in both cases the father is disabled, unable to respond to their sons’ trying to connect – or in the case of Bobby even apologize. Llewyn sings his dad a sweet ballad – again from Inside Llewyn Davis. All he gets in response are full diapers. The moment has past. Inside Llewyn Davis, Five Easy Pieces and Le Feu Follet are no coming of age films. What they share with the young aforementioned movies are protagonists who insist on authenticity. Llewyn can’t stand the silly aspect of folk music. Still he isn’t able to transcend the clichés. He tries for sure. When he says at the end: “that’s all I got” – that’s meant in a literal way. Polite applause. Then Bob Dylan enters the stage and changes music history.
Alain is fairly unimpressed by most of the people he meets on his farewell tour. He finds the talk of some pretentious artists just silly and a working class author daunts him with his security and virility. The mission of his two old political activist friends he finds too quixotic to join.
In Bobby’s case his strive for authenticity is most poignantly expressed in a scene in which he plays piano for the girlfriend of his brother. His goal: to get her into bed. After he’s done she appears deeply moved by what he played. He ridicules her for it, accusing her of role playing. They get into bed eventually.
But as the abovementioned quote says how can a person as Bobby ask for love? Someone who doesn’t love anything?