Among the many discussions I have had with esteemed colleagues at the film festival in Cannes a central theme of style versus content has emerged. Probably it’s by coincidence it has emerged more than usual this year, but it strikes me as an important question in regard to arthouse cinema. I remember when I started out as a film critic. I was amazed at what colleagues saw in the different layers of a film like Himalaya by Eric Valli from 1999. I just saw a caravan of oxes trekking infinitely into oblivion. Of course I have learnt a lot since then about my craft and must see that film again I suppose. Anyway, the question that occurred to me in Cannes is: how deep does a film have to be, or how many layers does it have to have, to be satisfying for film critics?
One of the films that’s been subject to these discussions is the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, about a folk singer during the beginning of the 1960s. Llewyn Davis is living in the era of Bob Dylan, but is lacking Dylan’s talent and must struggle to make a living. It’s a simple story about a near-loser made with great trademarks of clever filmmaking. The Coen brothers debuted in 1984 with Blood Simple and had both film critics and film nerds around the world on their side to begin with. This has remained the case nearly ever since. Barton Fink won the Palme d’Or in Cannes in 1991 and they won an Oscar for Fargo in 1996. In more recent years they are best remembered for The Big Lebowski, No Country For Old Men and True Grit.
Joel and Ethan Coen are great stylists, taking care of cinematography, lighting and soundtracks down to very microscopic details. They are obviously very skilled, being sensational at casting the right actors and able to write even the smallest character up to mean something and provide a lasting impression. Just one example is F. Murray Abrahams (Salieri in Milos Forman’s Amadeus) as an agent, who is only in the film for two minutes yet still resonates. One could say the Coen brothers cast their films with better and more prominent actors than most of the parts need, and this gives extra life to the proceedings on screen.
Many times in the days after the screening of the film I found myself in arguments, having to convince other critics that the film was good enough. Many people were saying: “It’s very good but it’s too light”. But what does this mean? Every film doesn’t have to save the planet. If a film transforms just one person’s mood by the way of laughter, making him want to save the planet indirectly, is that not also a quality? I think so. I agree with my discussion partners that Inside Llewyn Davis does not have the ability to change the world on its own and is like, for example, The Big Lebowski — not a film loaded with symbolism or deeper meaning. I just want to state the case that every film does not have to be about how hard life is and throw hardship and violence at you from faraway parts of the planet to be meaningful, as many of this year’s films in Cannes have excelled at doing.
As a side-note, I would also like to thank the jury of Cannes for backing me up by rewarding the Coen brothers with this year’s Grand Prix.
Edited by Carmen Gray
© FIPRESCI 2013