Just when I was starting to feel down about this year's Cannes film festival, the Coen brothers came to the rescue with their gorgeous Inside Llewyn Davis, a razor-sharp deadpan comedy suffused with sorrow about a struggling folk singer in early-1960s New York.
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I'm not an unconditional fan of the Coens, who sometimes treat their characters with smarter-than-thou condescension that can make their films feel like cold, hermetic exercises in irony (Burn After Reading is a prime example, and their 1991 Palme d'Or winner Barton Fink isn't far off).
But their new movie ranks with their very best (Fargo, No Country for Old Men, A Serious Man) in its nearly pitch-perfect balance of biting satirical humour and deep reserves of feeling. The film's protagonist (played by singer-actor Oscar Isaac in a star-making, award-worthy turn) embodies the tricky duality of cruelty and tenderness that makes Inside Llewyn Davis such a treat. Navigating his mess of an offstage life—couch-hopping, mooching, and wrangling with his scam artist manager and another folk singer who may or may not be carrying his child (Carey Mulligan, radiating fury tinged with longing in a marvellously vivid comic performance)—Llewyn Davis is a schlumpy, scowling grump. But when he performs (glorious folk tunes arranged by T-Bone Burnett and sung live on set), revealing a honeyed, slightly raspy voice, his face mellows, his eyes close, and he seems to be opening his soul to the world. This jerk's music is his redeeming feature.