Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Gorgeous images and rich sounds enrich the Coen brothers’ glum story of folk singer in New York City in the early 1960s.


Joel Coen

Ethan Coen
Joel Coen

Ethan Coen
Director of Photography:
Bruno Delbonnel

Running time: 105 minutes

Two-thirds into Inside Llewyn Davis, the titular main character, a folk singer with a beautiful voice but no money, finally gets the chance to perform for a major record producer in Chicago, Bud Grossman. Grossman, whom Davis has wanted to impress for a long time, sits calmly just a few short feet away while Davis sings his heart out. The song moves us beyond belief, and we can’t help but expect that Grossman will feel the same. However, in case we still haven’t realised how desperate the situation is for this musician, we will find out very soon.

The question the scene raises, at least on the surface, is whether we want so badly for Davis to succeed because we have got to know him quite well over the first two acts, and we know he is down on his luck despite being a nice guy and an excellent singer. Perhaps Grossman doesn’t feel the same way because he doesn’t see the full picture.

But that is not true. In the film’s opening scene, when Davis performs the traditional folk song “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” in the New York City’s Gaslight Café in the winter of 1961, we are immediately mesmerised by his evident talent and sincere emotional connection to the material despite not knowing anything about him. We would only recognise, towards the end of the film, what had led up to that opening scene, but actor Oscar Isaac is captivating in the role and gets our attention whether we know his story or not.

There are many more songs throughout the film, sometimes complete numbers that Davis performs in clubs or in private, sometimes a recording from the LP he had made with his previous duo partner, Mike Gorfein, who recently committed suicide. In between the many songs, Davis’s circular existence of desperation is slightly modified by his interactions with his kind friends, who allow him to sleep on their couch, and by his not-so-kind friends, like the unsmiling Jean (Carey Mulligan), who tells him she thinks she is carrying his baby and generally behaves like a real cow throughout the story.

Luckily, Davis doesn’t seem to let all this negativity get him down. He is dead broke, doesn’t even own a winter jacket despite the polar temperatures all the way through the film and has no career to speak of except for the odd performance for a small group of nightly revellers at the Gaslight. And yet, he is not depressed, and neither are we. Directors Joel and Ethan Coen are very clever in lulling us into a false sense of security by having the main character cope despite the obstacles, until the very end when we realise this is just the latest round of misery to strike him, and in all likelihood this will still be his life for some time to come.

His failed performance for Grossman notwithstanding, perhaps the most heartbreaking moment is when he crashes on the couch of Al Cody (Adam Driver), another singer, and is looking to store his box full of unsold records somewhere. Davis looks under a small table, only to find a similar box of Cody’s unsold records. This is a brief but powerful blow to our sense of optimism.

Even the moments that do offer some hope, like a jovial and uplifting performance with Jean’s straitlaced husband, Jim (Justin Timberlake), are deflated by our realisation that, no matter how popular the song is, he will barely see enough money to pay his immediate debts.

The cinematography is some of the best of any Coen brothers film since their 2001 hit O Brother, Where Art Thou?,a suitable comparison given the musical connection between the two and the importance of a character named “Ulysses” in both. Tones of green and grey are central to the palette, and so is the play of light and darkness, sometimes verging on chiaroscuro, most evident in the Chicago scene with Grossman (F. Murray Abraham). The director of photography is Bruno Delbonnel, who has only worked with the brothers once before, on their hilarious short film contribution to the Paris, je t’aime anthology film.

There are many things here that should spell utter gloom for the viewer – mean individuals who feel nothing for others’ feelings, a central character whose best friend is his guitar and a cat whose name he doesn’t even know, the same commuters on the subway day in and day out, and a life slipping more and more quickly downhill – but thanks to the music and a spellbinding performance by Isaac, we remain a captive audience for most of the film.

He steals the show with his renditions of folk songs and, bathed in Delbonnel’s lush cinematography, sometimes with the cat draped over his shoulder to keep him warm, this period film is as beautiful as the story it tells is tragic. We may not get inside his head, but we certainly get a very good impression of the mood of the time and of his life.

Marguerite (2015)

The story of a woman who sang opera even though she did not have a shred of talent is more enchanting than it sounds.

marguerite-xavier-giannoliFrance/Czech Republic

Xavier Giannoli

Xavier Giannoli

Marcia Romano
Director of Photography:
Glynn Speeckaert

Running time: 130 minutes

In Citizen Kane, Charles Foster Kane’s second wife’s ambition of being an opera singer, despite having a terrible voice, was bankrolled by her rich husband, a newspaper tycoon and heir to a sizable fortune. The reviews were terrible, but their isolation from the rest of society served to protect her from the overwhelmingly negative response from both the public and the critics.

Marguerite, a French-Czech-Belgian co-production, provides French comedy legend Catherine Frot with a similar role – one informed by the real-life story of the wealthy but notoriously out-of-tune opera soprano Florence Foster Jenkins. Frot stars as the titular Marguerite, a French baroness whom we first encounter at a private recital in aid of First World War orphans. She is the only one who fails to recognise her attempt at channelling Mozart’s “Queen of the Night’s Aria” (Der Hölle Rache) from The Magic Flute is so crass it sounds like a cat is being strangled. The high society audience can barely restrain themselves from snickering into their perfumed sleeves.

But while many a newspaper excoriates her performance, one even running the headline “Pauvre Mozart” (Poor Mozart), a single critic, the dashing young Lucien Beaumont, lavishes her with ambiguous praise when he remarks that her voice seemed to want to expel some demon from the room. Of course, Beaumont has an ulterior motive, as we can easily guess when we see his friend, Kyrill, regale a well-to-do woman at the recital with tales of an art gallery he wants to open and inquires about the possibility of an investment.

Set between 1920 and 1921, Marguerite makes seamless transitions across time that become veritable leaps toward the end, as the baroness, with no shortage of instigation by Beaumont, moves toward an unskilled performance on a large public stage. Small moments along the way highlight her most intimate relationships, complicated by the lies people tell to spare her the pain of the truth.

It would be easy to dismiss the central character as a thinly veiled embodiment of anyone surrounded by yes-men and yes-women who merely exacerbate a toxic situation by avoiding the potentially agonising conversation that breaks the truth: This woman cannot sing to save her life.

However, such a view of the film would be overly simplistic, as Marguerite, thanks to Frot, is endearing and close to naïve but does not have a single mean bone in her body. Persistent exposure to her singing may cause some people to pine for hearing loss, but she is not hurting anyone, and telling her she is delusional and sounds worse than a broken bagpipe may wreck her life, which revolves around her love of music.

She has accumulated in excess of 1,400 partitions, some from the great masters of opera, and she seems to know the libretti by heart. But as those in the music industry are astounded to learn, such a deep knowledge of the fifth art does not preclude one from reproducing it with utter ineptitude, albeit with heart and soul.

Frot, however, is in complete control of her portrayal of the musically challenged baroness. Marguerite is serene and focused like a laser on the task at hand: Sharing her love of the opera with those around her. In this task she is loyally assisted by her butler, Madelbos, who has her best interests at heart and, considering the impressive collection of pictures he has taken of her in various poses, likely also yearns for her affection.

Director Xavier Giannoli, who presents his material with a straight face, includes the symbol of the peacock, which we never see displaying the beautiful colours of its feathers but whose screams we do hear at irregular intervals around the house (the sound is not dissimilar from the brief meow of a cat).

All the main parts are admirably depicted, and it is to Giannoli’s credit that this inherent romp is lighthearted but never turns into a circus. Unexpectedly, Marguerite’s climax is both funny and deeply affecting, as a moment of magical realism turns the spectacle into a heartfelt recognition of the purity of Dumont’s desire to be close to her husband and to sing her heart out. The balance here, as elsewhere in the film, is highly commendable.

The 127-minute film never feels like a drag; on the contrary, some characters – like Hazel, a talented young graduate from the conservatory, or the slightly mysterious Madelbos, who likes to take pictures of objects being consumed by fire and leaves an indelible imprint on the viewer – are sorely underdeveloped. Nonetheless, the effortless distinction with which the director and his leading lady present the comedic melodrama of this peculiar individual whom we cannot but pity makes for a very gratifying film.