Criterion Spotlight: Inside Llewyn Davis, from a Queer Perspective

“Folk singer with a cat. You queer?”

The third time I re-watched Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis sticks in my memory. There is not typically anything special about the third re-watch of a film, but this particular time I was with other people. Although it was an offhand comment, I can’t help but remember what one person said to me: “I don’t know how you can watch this. The main character is such an asshole.” This struck me in a very particular way––not only was I mildly offended on behalf of my film taste, as anyone would be, but I felt almost defensive on behalf of the character in question, the titular Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac). At first I couldn’t really place my finger on why I felt so protective of this character, but I soon came to realize it was because I saw a glimmer of myself in him. I saw him not as an asshole or unlikable hero but as a man who is grieving for the loss of a partner. Although the film does not explicitly say there was any queer romance in this partnership, watching Inside Llewyn Davis from a queer perspective deeply changes the impact of the film.

The film opens with Llewyn singing a song of misery in the Gaslight Cafe, after which he has a violent encounter in an alleyway, where a man beats him up for shouting insults the night before when he was drunk. The narrative then loops back to before the incident, and starts to paint the picture of who Llewyn is. We become familiarized with him as he lives his life, set to the song, “Fare Thee Well”, a song Llewyn sang when he was part of a duo with a man named Mike. Llewyn has since gone solo, although his record has not been successful. He has little to no income and lives day-to-day playing gigs where he can and sleeping on couches. Although it is not immediately clear at the start of the film why Llewyn “left” the duo, we learn that Mike committed suicide, leaving Llewyn and their music behind. His grief permeates through the film. Llewyn struggles to express his feelings and turns to the only things that have ever helped him cope: music and anger.

Music is perhaps the most telling aspect of the queer narrative. The songs weave the underlying themes of loss and love. This is especially evident in the opening lyrics of “Fare Thee Well”:

If I had wings like Noah’s Dove

I’d fly the river to the one I love

Fare thee well, my honey, fare thee well

Originally titled “Dink’s Song”, it is an American folk song that has been covered by many folk artists since it was originally written. It depicts the story of a woman mourning the loss of her husband who has passed away. As the song plays, we hear Llewyn and Mike’s voices in beautiful harmony. The song feels like an incredibly intimate look into Llewyn’s life, yet it does not sacrifice its subtlety. Llewyn’s actions feel almost disconnected from the music, while still being an intrinsic part of his nature. This is not only the second song featured in the film, but also the last we see Llewyn sing; it both sets the stage for, and draws the curtain upon, Llewyn’s inner emotional turmoil.

Llewyn’s underlying anger at his lot in life is most evident when he visits his friends, the Gorfeins (Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett respectively). They invite him to dinner and ask him to perform a song. He obliges, but as he sings, Lillian Gorfein begins to harmonize with Mike’s part. Llewyn reacts with anger, shouting that he doesn’t care about Mike or his part. This anger and lashing out is an incredibly common reaction when dealing with grief of any kind, let alone the grief of one you love passing. It is especially challenging due to the complicated nature of his relationship with Mike. He has a number of similar outbursts in the film, such as when he hurls drunken insults at a female singer on stage. Although he is painted in the light of a deeply flawed man, it is not difficult to see beyond his façade.

llewyn2
“I’m tired. I thought I just needed a night’s sleep but it’s more than that.”

Is Llewyn an asshole? Well, yes and no. Other characters with whom he interacts, such as Jean (Carey Mulligan) certainly think he’s an asshole, but the film itself certainly depicts a more nuanced picture. He is first and foremost a man stuck in a cycle of failure from which he cannot seem to escape no matter what he tries, which most certainly affects his actions and motivates him to make some poor choices. But on a deeper level he is a man who is coping with intense grief from the very opening number of the film, “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” to the final shot of Llewyn, alone in an alleyway. We are left with an image that certainly does not inspire hope; there is little doubt the cycle will continue as it has, just as the opening scene mirrors the first. We see Llewyn’s life through his own eyes, and we see him as he sees himself: a thoroughly melancholic man who does not know how to proceed in his life without Mike. When watching the movie from the more layered and nuanced perspective of Llewyn as a queer man struggling with heartbreak, it becomes a much more sympathetic character piece than it might be otherwise.

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