The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man: Inside Llewyn Davis
There is much to be said about the Coen’s Bros. latest work, that I’ve decided to split posts circled around themes and motifs rather than try to write all at once. The film traces the journey of Llewyn Davis, unsuccessful folk singer in 1961, bumming off of couches in Greenwich Village. Through his journey from New York to Chicago and back again, we see how he’s plagued by cyclical systems of destruction. At first it seems all of his fault; Llewyn himself has an acerbic personality, and begins the film in a narcissistic vein. Roughly the first half of the film it appears Llewyn’s problems arise from his own moral lacking, that it’s his fault for his lack of success and living conditions. However, by the end of the film, these narrative strands are torn away to reveal and artist stuck in perpetual cycles of poverty and injustice.
His friend Jean blames him for her pregnancy, when its revealed that he used a condom, while the owner of the popular folk bar likely did not. Regardless, Llewyn pays for the abortion, renouncing the possibilities for royalties on a song he helped record to quickly the money. But it turns out he didn’t need to do that anyway, as the woman of a previous relationship never got the abortion he paid for. It’s later implied by Chicago business Bud Grossman that the company Llewyn’s signed with treats him poorly. By the end of the film, beaten and worn down, Llewyn tries to turn to the life of merchant marine again. He uses the last of his money to pay his dues, but has lost his license, so again he is stuck without money and a lack of income. The film begins and ends with Llewyn being beaten up by a man cloaked in shadow. And apt metaphor if there ever was one.
The morality of the film (all Coen Bros. films are intensely moral, though not necessarily didactic) is elusive. The film doesn’t urge the audience to take pity on Llewyn; he causes problems (sleeping with Jean, who is already in a steady relationship, etc.) and reaps the consequences of them. After all, the man beats Llewyn up because he drunkenly cat called his wife the previous day. I think what lies at the heart of the film is that the world is unforgiving, so Llewyn always suffers for his mistakes at full force. His caustic nature also makes it hard to grease the wheels, so success in music and his social life : couches are often let out of necessity rather than generosity.
Perhaps Llewyn’s life would be so much better, so much better, if his former duet partner hadn’t committed suicide. Grossman implies he be much better off in a duo act. Llewyn agrees. But instead tragedy begets more tragedy, and I’m left wondering if there really is a root cause for all of Llewyn’s problems. Because it’s cyclical, always cyclical. And it breaks my heart.