CANNES, FRANCE — "Inside Llewyn Davis" tells the story of a folk musician (Oscar Isaac) awaiting a big break that never seems to arrive. Chronically short on cash, mooching off a different friend each night for a couch to sleep on, reluctant to seize promising opportunities or look far beyond the moment, he takes great pride in a level of artistic achievement that probably won't get him anywhere.
That's not the way things worked out for the Coen brothers, who've enjoyed a degree of creative freedom that would be the envy of any filmmaker. But it is a dilemma for which they have sympathy; after all, things could have easily gone the other way.
"We would be the last people to dispute the fact that we've been very lucky," Joel Coen explained in a roundtable interview at Cannes's Carlton Hotel this afternoon. The duo had gathered with Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, T-Bone Burnett, and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel to discuss their film, currently one of the heavyweights for the Palme d'Or on Sunday.
While the brothers' own career had little bearing on the character or story — largely set in 1961 New York — Llewyn's inability to break through is one of the things that appealed to them dramatically. "Making a movie about someone who's not successful, who isn't very good at what they do isn't very interesting," Joel says. "But making a movie about someone who's not successful who is very good at what they do is interesting."
The movie returns the Coens to the existential-anxiety mode of "Barton Fink" and "A Serious Man." Like those films, it puts its protagonist through a wringer of frustrations that might take even Kafka aback. To hear the brothers tell it, the connection to those films is more tenuous than early reviews might suggest. "Barton Fink is just a little too self-important as an artist to get much sympathy," Ethan says. "We like the put-upon people. We like to inflict pain on the characters. I don't know — somehow that just seems a story thing. What happens next?"
"Somebody did point out," Joel adds, "and it was very interesting to us, because we hadn't realized it, that whenever we make a movie about an artist we inflict John Goodman on them." (Goodman has a role as a gasbag bluesman with whom Llewyn Davis shares a long car ride from New York to Chicago.)
The project has made them into amateur historians on the period. When prompted, Joel goes on about parallel developments in jazz and abstract expressionism that were also happening in New York at the time. "There were some points of intersection, and at some times they had absolutely nothing to do with each other," he says. None of the musicians in the film has a perfect real-life counterpart. They were after a feel — or in the case of Mulligan's not-quite-love interest, the "Village girl look."
"There was also a political factionalism we kind of thought maybe the movie would get into, but it never really did," Ethan says.
A colleague asks if the duo has softened — this is certainly a more mellow, low-key Coen brothers movie than we're used to. "There's something I've noticed [that's] very interesting to me," Joel says. "We make a movie, and often people will say, 'This is a Coen brothers movie for people who don't like Coen brothers movies.' And I've been reading that for 15 or 20 years now, as each one successively comes up. What's the originating sort of thing of that? Anyway, it's a little puzzling."