What the hell was going on with the cat?
It’s a question many have asked after seeing Inside Llewyn Davis. Critics agree that the marmalade-colored kitty who unexpectedly joins cranky folk musician Llewyn Davis on his travels around New York City and Chicago adds a great touch of mystery; Anna Silman at Vulture calls it a “cryptic, adorable narrative device,” while Eric Kohn of Indiewire refers to the bond between Llewyn and the cat as “mysteriously inexplicable.” Writes Dana Stevens at Slate, “I think the cat’s (or cats’) fate is connected in some way to the puzzling temporal relationship between those opening and closing scenes at the Gaslight, but after two viewings, I still haven’t figured out quite how.” The cat, then, makes us pause—but we can’t quite pin down why.
So here’s a theory: Llewyn actually is the cat. And the cat is Llewyn. Not in a Tyler Durdencat, no-one-was-really-lapping-up-that-milk-the-whole-time kind of way, but in a very real and appropriately folky way: It seems the Coens, perhaps inspired by their love of mythology (also echoed by other small details of the film, like the tribal masks decorating the Gorfeins' apartment—and Mel’s studio), use the device of the shifty totemic cat, with all of its symbolic meaning, to amplify Llewyn’s quest for identity.
We know that in fictional works, animals that look like or act like people aren’t rare. There are the evil Siamese cats in 101 Dalmatians, and the quintessential “villain-with-cat.” (And even in real life, science remains fascinated by why some people look like their pets.) Cats in fiction also show off their mystical bona fides by serving as conduits between worlds—like the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland and the black cat from the stop-motion Coraline.
But the cat from Llewyn takes that further. Yes, at moments it jolts Llewyn in and out of his moments of slumber (cat naps, one could even say) and leads him along an “Incredible Journey,” but it also mirrors him. They don’t look alike—they correspond. It’s kind of like the world of The Amber Spyglass, where animal creatures called daemons house the souls of their human partners. Or in other words, the cat is Llewyn’s furry horcrux.
The Coens even state it in the first seven pages of the script. When Llewyn calls Professor Gorfein’s receptionist, she announces that “Llewyn is the cat,” after mishearing his intended message. There are other hints in the dialogue, too: In an early version of the script, Llewyn tells the elevator operator, “Yeah, I—it’s the Gorfeins’ cat.” The obvious way to read that is as a hesitation, but the subtle accompanying suggestion that “I, Llewyn = the cat” may not be an accident, especially paired with the receptionist’s comment. If you buy this, it adds a fun layer to other moments, like when he yells at Jean that he’s “not a fucking cat!” Why so defensive? Too soon?
Then there are visual clues. During a subway ride, the cat stares into the subway window over Llewyn’s shoulder. In the reflection, we only see the cat’s head—Llewyn’s remains unlit. This gives us the odd image of the cat’s head almost on top of Llewyn’s torso, like the kind of statue an Egyptian Pharoah’s artisans might have sculpted if they had spent more time in smoky Greenwich Village bars.. Then, on the road trip to Chicago, Llewyn and the cat look at the Beat-poet driver in an eerily simultaneous way. After Johnny Five is done muttering, both Llewyn and the cat turn their heads away to the right at precisely the same time and angle.
There’s also a parallel between Llewyn’s choices and the cat’s presence. For example Llewyn, ever the victim of his own choices, passes the highway exit to Akron and the warm promises of home and hearth and perhaps even love. Right afterwards, he hits the cat. There’s a potential link between the emotional hurt he just did himself and the harm he’s just inflicted on the cat.
And guess what Llewyn means in Welsh? Lionlike. The Welsh word for lion is “llew” and the suffix “-yn” denotes self-ness. The name is an evolution of Llywelyn, from the Welsh prince Llywelyn the Great—whose coat of arms features curiously tabbyish-looking lions.
This presence of cat-ness in Llewyn’s very name matters because two of the chief themes Inside Llewyn Davis explores are identity and authenticity.
Llewyn desperately needs to find himself. He is terrified of the mere “existence” of his father and sister, and craves success—affirmation, really—as a folk singer. But if any of his contemporaries catch a break, he scorns them. He mocks Jean’s dream of having a family life as careerist, square, and sad. He’s thankful for the gig, but can’t believe Jim wrote something as banal as his song “Please, Mr. Kennedy.” The Irish folk group based on The Clancy Brothers? Well, their sweaters are nice. He’s a penniless couch-hopper, but screams at moussaka chef extraordinaire Lillian Gorfein that music is “how I pay the fucking rent!”
These identity problems show up all over the dialogue, especially with the amount of time spent figuring out names. Al Cody is really the less- sexily named Arthur Milgrum. A beat poet driver Llewyn encounters goes by the surely made up name of “Johnny Five.” The musician Roland Turner mishears Llewyn’s name as “Lou N. Davis.”
The name and identity of the cat is mysterious, too. Llewyn is always caught stammering saying the cat is his, or the Gorfeins’, or that it’s a he or a she. He asks the cat several times for its name (to no response).
The focus on names fits right into the theme of identity. In folklore and mythology, one of the unbreakable laws is that names have power. To control anything of magic, you must know its true name. And cats in particular have universally been portrayed as nearly impossible to control.
James Joyce’s influence is recognizable throughout the movie (i.e., Llewyn’s epic journey stays mostly within a few square miles, just like Leopold Bloom’s in Ulysses), but it’s a work by T.S. Eliot that perfectly illustrates the odd relationship between cats and identity Inside Llewyn Davis embodies. His poem The Naming of Cats asserts that a cat in meditation is always “engaged in a rapt contemplation / of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name.
This theory that the cat is an extension of Llewyn also helps put the ending of the movie in context. When Llewyn leaves the Gorfeins’ for the “second” time in the final scenes of the film, he keeps the cat inside. This comes after he’s finally learned its name: Ulysses. By doing so, I think the uncontrollable, unpredictable Llewyn also comes to terms with a part of himself. He has been awoken from the dream that he’s an undiscovered genius, and from the erroneous notion that talent exists in a vacuum—that any of his poor decisions and arrogant assholery wouldn’t somehow limit his success.
He still has to pay the price for his behavior (most notably in the form of a back alley beating), and he still has a long journey ahead. But Llewyn has reconciled with the cat—learning a name that, like Llewyn says of a beloved folk ballad, "was never new and won’t get old." And that makes all the difference.
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