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Cannes Diary: Inside the Coens Press Luncheon

One of the standout films in the main competition here in Cannes has to be the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis. God kills a kitten every time a hipster calls it “minor Coen brothers.” It wasn’t that long ago when no one thought The Big Lebowski was even very good, let along the comic masterpiece that it became. The Coens’ films demand constant re-evaluation. Declaring anything definitively negative about Llewyn Davis right now is a fool’s game. But go right on ahead if that is your inclination. Make sure it’s written in ink somewhere. For all time.

The studio invited press to come to the Carlton hotel — one of the luxury hotels facing the glittering sea this side of the Croisette. A roundtable junket style meet-and-greet, as a way for journalists to better get to know, I’d guess, the film’s rising star, Oscar Isaac. How else are you going to get journalists to write about him than to promise them free food and drink and a chance to sit fairly closely to the elusive and always in demand Coens.

The first thing that happened to me upon entering the Carlton hotel was to notice how awful I looked. My flat doesn’t come with a hair dryer, and I’d forgotten to bring mine. Even if I had brought mine I felt sure it would have blown out the french outlet like it did last year. I could have bought one here but I never thought I’d need it. Looking at what my mother would call a “rat’s nest” that managed to simultaneously hang flatly on top and straggle at the bottom I was suddenly horrified. “I can’t go in there,” I said to Craig Kennedy who was also along for the junket. “Is there anything I can say to make you feel better?” “No, no. There isn’t.”

Oh what the hell, I thought, I’ll just sit in the back. Believe me, if it were only the hair I think I could have managed that but by the time I sat down I was thinking — I am a walking fashion, hair and makeup disaster. I never should go out in the light of day, much less to hobnob at the Carlton hotel in Cannes. But I was there to do a job, of course, to help promote the film Inside Llewyn Davis, which is like asking me to help promote the French croissant. Not the hardest job in the world.

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The room was full of journalists of the highest caliber — the Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday, Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir, the Toronto Star’s Pete Howell, Eugene Hernandez, Rose Kuo, Hollywood-Elsewhere’s Jeff Wells, Pete Hammond — the usual suspects. I always feel like an imposter around them. A blogger has no real right to pretend to be a real journalist and yet, there we were. I found First Showing’s Alex Billington, who said he was just there for the lunch but would leave before the roundtables began. “I hate them,” he said. He’s hoping to have them obliterated from the circuit. He’s young and ambitious still. Life hasn’t yet kicked him in the teeth repeatedly until he stops hoping and wishing for anything good to happen ever.

I’m thinking, there is no way the Coens would ever do one-on-ones with this many people. It’s much easier to simply round-table it. That way, they can talk to lots and not just a few. Bloggers like me could never get in to meet them if it weren’t for the roundtables. Still, I see Alex’s point. You never get your questions in and you are often at the mercy of the most aggressive question-askers.

David Poland arrived and I made him sit at our table near the back. He would ordinarily be up near the front with the higher-ups but somehow I cajoled him to come sit in the back. When Chaz Ebert arrived she recognized him and came to sit at our table so suddenly we were the cool ones. It was, I must say, all kidding aside, one of the best things that has ever happened to me, to be sitting that close to Chaz.

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The lunch was a lovely array of fish, pasta, salad — lots of stuff you want to eat but force yourself not to. Each table had three bottles of opened wine, white, red and rose (the South of France demands it), a bouquet of roses in their final resting place in a glass vase, bottles of water that kindly waiters kept pouring into our empty glasses. Now that I think about it, I should have not let any of that wine go to waste. I wondered what they did with it after the journalists left. Did it just get poured down the drain? Did the waiters get to take it home?

The first member of the team to take his place at our table was the film’s star, Oscar Isaac. Moments after he arrived in came T-Bone Burnett. Isaac is a pure revelation as Llewyn Davis. It’s just one of those inexplicable perfect storms that can sometime happen to a performer. He’d taught himself how to play guitar and sing at the age of 13. At the same time, he’d studied acting. Over the years, he’s played diverse roles throughout his career, most notably the ice-cold ex-con in Drive. It’s hard to imagine he’s the same actor in both films. He talked about filming himself singing a song he wrote to the Coen brothers, thinking, they’re never going to pick me. When Joel Coen gave him a callback, he talked to him about the movie for a good, long time before telling Isaac he got the part. For a character actor with that much talent existing mostly on sidelines it really is the big break every actor in the business dreams about. Some people get it, some don’t. Llewyn Davis never got it, but Oscar Isaac most certainly did.

But it wasn’t long before T-Bone Burnett engaged the table. He talked at length about the music in the film, of course, but also of the appreciation the production had for the folk scene prior to Bob Dylan’s arrival. I had one question prepared for those working on the film, something that came to me in the middle of the night — Inside Llewyn Davis is about fate — it’s about how no matter how good you are, no matter if you’re in the right place at the right time, it isn’t going to mean anything if the guy right behind you is Bob Dylan. I asked Burnett about that and he thought that in some ways, yes, there was fate involved with all things in life, not just the career of one person. Isaac said “I don’t believe in fate.” To him, it’s about hard work and luck.

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The next people to come to our table was the cinematographer, Bruno Delbonnel. His presence quieted the table a bit. I insulted him right off the bat by asking about the film’s blue hue. “It’s not blue,” he explained and named another hue. He was talking painterly colors, which I actually do know. “It’s beautiful,” I said, meaning, “see, I’m really not THIS dumb. Okay, maybe I am.”

Soon the discussion turned to digital vs. film. Llewyn Davis was shot on film. It might be his last film ever shot on film, he said, as his next project, a Tim Burton movie, will be filmed digitally. He thinks technology is moving too fast and that it will be tougher for artists to adapt to the technology and that it is, ultimately, unnecessary. He was chosen for Llewyn Davis partly because Roger Deakins was off filming Skyfall, but also, I think, because he is gifted with other-worldly lensing, which suits Llewyn Davis very well. Every question I asked kind of bombed out with him and I had flashbacks of being on a subway platform trying to ask to the Parisians how to buy metro tickets.

Next, Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake arrived. She is pretty in films, and of course, one of the most talented actresses working in film. But I suppose I was unprepared for how pretty she is in person. She’s what Woody Allen would refer to as “cripplingly pretty.” She speaks in a low, British accent and appears much more delicate in person than on screen. And she’s tall.

I do realize that I am speaking about her appearance and not with anyone else would I ever do that — it isn’t sexism so much as my own surprise at the difference between how she looks in person and how she looks on screen. Also, she didn’t do much of the talking as JT kind of took over. His dead pan humor sometimes came off wrong to our table as the jokes weren’t readily gotten but eventually we loosened up and he made us laugh. Mulligan talked about how the Coens on the page is the way to go and that their writing is already so precise no improvising is needed. JT talked about how happy he was to see Oscar Isaac finally receive overdue recognition for his career, and what a trip it was to see him at the Palais standing in front of a sea of people.

Finally, the Coens arrived. I’ve never actually been in the same room with them before so allow me the moment. Here was a situation where the roundtable scenario really was problematic. We were their third table and they were likely burned out already, jet lagged, who knows what else, not that it showed particularly in their interview but I made assumptions. Also, I wanted them all to myself. Was it so unreasonable?

They did talk about how Llewyn Davis is a fictional character and not a direct parallel with Van Ronk, the folkie from back in the day upon whose memoir much of the film is loosely based. It’s more about the time itself and not so much Van Ronk, who really wasn’t the kind of hard luck Charlie Llewyn Davis was.

I finally had the chance to ask my question about Llewyn Davis and fate, which had woken me up in the middle of the night. Joel said definitively no, it wasn’t about fate. Luck, perhaps, circumstance but not predetermined fate because that is dependent upon who you are when you are born. Ethan hedged a little on it, more inclined towards my idea of no matter what you do there’s always going to be Bob Dylan heading into Greenwich Village in the early 60s. But then again, maybe not. Fate certainly never put Dylan in the right place at the right time. Fate contradicts happenstance, which much of the time is all good fortune is. Fate is something you resign yourself to — so why would you ever try to do anything? No, Llewyn Davis isn’t about fate. Still, Llewyn Davis is Sisyphus — pushing the heavy boulder up the hill only to have it roll back down again, as many protagonists in Coen brothers films often are.

Life is a struggle, to be sure. Llewyn Davis is about artistic struggle, juxtaposed against someone like Bob Dylan for whom songwriting always came so easy.

They left our table far too quickly. I think all would agree that Chaz Ebert asked the best questions and was the least intimidated by the filmmakers. The wine was left mostly untouched. David Poland had long since left. Roundtables, he’d said, were unsatisfying.

As we slowly filed out of the room, I was thinking about fate, or circumstance, or whatever the series of events were that led up to the moment when I met T-Bone Burnnett, Joel and Ethan Coen, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake and Bruno Delbonnel. But mostly I was thinking about Oscar Isaac, and his spectacular optimism — how, at 13 years old he picked up a guitar and started writing songs, having no idea that it would eventually bring him to the Coen brothers doorstep. How do you measure a dream? Where do you even start?

The wind was whipping up skirts and hair through the streets of Cannes, clearing out every dank smell the rain left behind. My trip to Cannes is most of the way over, I was thinking, but I remembered to imprint this day. No pictures were allowed inside. But as Bob Dylan would say, “someday maybe I’ll remember to forget.”

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