I was expecting to like this film but it completely exceeded my expectations. Largely because it was such an interesting and accomplished exploration of a particular mode of being-in-the-world. Llewyn Davis is a struggling folk singer in Greenwich Village of the early 1960s, enmeshed in a tightly knit cultural world of fellow folk singers and shared venues, with the only welcome face of the outside world being an affable though patronising sociology professor, prone to introducing him at dinner parties as “our folk musician friend”. Formerly half of a folk duo, we come to discover that his former partner died in tragic circumstances, with Llewyn avowedly pursuing a solo career, while in reality existing in a chaotic cycle of gigs, arguments and homelessness.
What the film captured so powerfully was the episodic character of Llewyn’s life. There is a cut to black when Llewyn sleeps, experientially demarcating one episode from the next. His life is fragmented and his responses to it are fractured. He cares deeply about things, he feels strongly in relation to the events of his life but there’s no sustained coherency to this intentionality. The disjuncture between himself and the Gorfeins, his well off sociological friends, is not simply a matter of wealth and age but rather mode of existence. Llewyn’s life is utterly devoid of routine but it is also devoid of sustained reflexivity. In the absence of these, time is circular for Llewyn. It has rhythm but not structure and it sets him at odds with the only people he is close to, not least of all his deeply conventional sister raising a child in the suburbs. When he returns from a unsuccessful trip to Chicago, he is bewildered to realise how different his sense of time is from his friend’s, explaining how “it felt like a really long time but I guess it was only a couple of days” (or words to that effect).
He has little success with his music. He derides a friend for her putative careerism while nonetheless retaining a notional commitment to his own music constituting a career. When he works on a novelty record, later to achieve much success, he foregoes royalties in favour of immediate payment. When he gives up on music, he returns to his father’s work and his father’s union, rather than looking elsewhere. When he gives up on giving up the film has begun to feel so circular that we can only suspect he has done this many times before. There’s no unity to Llewyn’s life. There are events, with resonances and rhythms, fleeting but intense meanings which lack coherency over time. He lives on gut feelings, negotiating situations through impulse or necessity, forming powerful connections which he abandons as easily as he forms them. Or maybe I just can’t forgive him for leaving the cat in the car. Either way, I think he’s the most fully rounded portrayal I’ve ever seen of a fractured reflexive and the film has left me newly convinced about the potential value of relational realism as an approach to reading films. It also has what is probably now my all time favourite ending: despite his dramatic journey to Chicago, the drama in his personal life and his professional woes all that really happens in Llewyn’s life during the film is that he learns how to stop the Gorfeins’ cat from getting out when he leaves their apartment. I’ve written a PhD about temporality and reflexivity but the Coen brothers understand it better than I do. Damn.