The Coen brothers' resurrection of the pre-Dylan folk scene in Greenwich Village serenaded Cannes with its period music and melancholy tale of a self-destructive, feline-toting musician.
"Inside Llewyn Davis" was met rapturously at the Cannes Film Festival, where it premiered Sunday night. Joel and Ethan Coen said their primary interest was to recreate the atmosphere of the late 1950s, very early '60s folk revival amid the coffee shops of downtown New York.
"The movie doesn't really have a plot," Joel Coen told reporters at the festival. "That actually concerned us at a certain point. It's why we threw the cat in."
The film stars the relatively unknown Oscar Isaac as a talented but adrift singer-songwriter trying to attract attention after the suicide of his singing partner as he bounces from couch to couch. In tow is a cat -- a kind of symbol for Llewyn's tenuous decency -- that he reluctantly shepherds after it escapes from a friend's apartment.
Isaac's performance as the caustic, frustrated Isaac drew immediate raves at Cannes and predictions of an Oscar nomination. CBS Films will release "Inside Llewyn Davis" this fall in the heart of awards season.
"It's really the music where you see his soul come out," Isaac said.
Isaac and the cast (Carey Mulligan as a furious, expletive-spewing friend; Justin Timberlake as a cheesy pop folkie) performed their songs live with music supervisor T-Bone Burnett, who memorably collaborated with the Coens on the Grammy-winning hit soundtrack to "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"
Set in 1961 on the cusp of Bob Dylan's arrival ("the elephant in the room," Ethan Coen said), "Inside Llewyn Davis" is loosely based on the unfinished memoir by folk singer Dave Van Ronk, "The Mayor of MacDougal Street." (He released a 1963 album titled "Inside Dave Van Ronk.")
Timberlake's bearded character was based on the Irish folk singer Paul Clayton. In perhaps the film's most remarkable scene, he, along with Isaac and a cowboy hat-wearing Adam Driver (the "Girls" actor), record the absurd, bouncy "Please, Mr. Kennedy." The main line of the chorus is: "Please, Mr. Kennedy, don't shoot me into outer space." The song drew hearty applause at the media screening Saturday evening.
"I enjoy looking ridiculous in everyday life, so that was not hard for me to do in a movie," Timberlake said. He added: "It felt warm and fuzzy to me to be in this movie and singing."
While that performance is an uproarious parody, the songs performed in the film by Llewyn are intimate and powerful. "Inside Llewyn Davis" is ultimately a story of talents who don't get the big break, and the razor thin line separating failure and fame.
"What was interesting to us was the lesser known scene, which was the scene that Dylan came into, as opposed to what Dylan -- who is such a transformative character both in terms of music and culture, in general -- how he changed that scene," Joel Coen said. "The music is something that we have a genuine and deep fondness and respect for."
He then added: "That's not to say there aren't funny things about folk music. There are plenty of funny things about folk music." (Certainly, Aran sweaters make a cameo.)
Reviews of the film so far have been positive, with Variety noting: "The Coens have again taken a real time and place and freely made it their own." According to The Hollywood Reporter, "Closer to some of the Coens' smaller films such as Barton Fink and A?Serious Man than to breakouts including 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' and 'No Country for Old Men,' the French-financed CBS Films pickup nonetheless is a singular work by the protean filmmaking team."
The Coens have been frequent visitors to Cannes, where they won the prestigious Palme d'Or in 1991 from a jury presided over by Roman Polanski. They're in the hunt again this year, with Steven Spielberg serving as jury president.
"Inside Llewyn Davis" arrives in theaters on Dec. 6.