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Coen brothers’ brand of humour on full display at Cannes

Director Joel Coen speaks during a press conference for Inside Llewyn Davis at the Cannes Film Festival on May 19, 2013.

Francois Mori/AP

Things took an awkward turn at Sunday's press conference for Joel and Ethan Coen's new film, Inside Llewyn Davis, which is perhaps the most eagerly anticipated film at this year's Cannes Film Festival and is slated for a December release. A German reporter referred to Nazism and the Holocaust before inquiring if the Coen brothers could define "Jewish humour."

The moment was reminiscent of Danish director Lars Von Trier's Nazi jokes that got him tossed out of 2011's festival. The reporter prefaced his question by saying Germans had a reputation for a poor sense of humour, at which point Joel interrupted him speaking in a mock German accent: "Why do they call him Curly when he has no hair?"

The reporter continued, saying that recent academic studies in Germany are exploring how there was a German humorous tradition but "somehow the humour left with the war and the Holocaust" and now "we don't know if the humour was German or Jewish." Finally, he concluded: "Jewish humour – does it exist and how would you describe it?"

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After a brief bout of shocked laughter, Justin Timberlake, on hand with fellow cast members Carey Mulligan and Oscar Isaac, stage-whispered into the microphone: "It's a trap."

"Help me out with this one," muttered Ethan, and his older brother Joel obliged:

"There's nothing like a Holocaust to put the stake in a certain kind of humour. I really don't know how to answer that," he said.

"I have to say I think that's a really provocative question," said T-Bone Burnett, apparently sincerely. "I'd like to investigate that further. Are they really doing that in Germany?"

But no one wanted to investigate it further, and the Coens, who are always more interested in responding seriously to practical questions than abstract ones, proved, at least, that there is a Coen brothers style of humour.

Take, for example, their answer about the source of inspiration for their new film, which begins with a scene of a folk singer (Isaac) finishing his set before being called out in an alley, where he is attacked by an angry stranger. One day, seven or eight years ago, Joel thought: "What if Dave Van Ronk got beat up outside Gertie's Folk City?"

Van Ronk, a bearish, 6-foot-4 rough-voiced folk singer led who died in 2002, was a formative influence on Bob Dylan and mentor of the Greenich Village folk scene. He left behind a 2005 posthumous memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, which the Coens made selective use of for their film.

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"It was such an absurd idea," said Joel, "that it took us a few years to think about it and where it could go from there."

The fictional character Llewyn Davis, is a more unhappy figure than Van Ronk, though he sings many of the same songs. He struggles with unresolved grief and paternity issues, and worries about finding a couch to sleep on for the night, and about a cat he let escape from a friend's apartment. "We noticed that movie doesn't really have a plot," added Joel. "That actually concerned us at a certain point. That's why we threw the cat in."

Though nowhere as broad Christopher Guest's A Mighty Wind , there's a gentle mockery of the personas the musicians adopt. Fans of the era will be reminded of the spectre of folk music styles, from a squeaky clean Peter, Paul and Mary-style trio, to a quartet of Clancy Brothers-style Irishmen in matching sweaters, and a Jewish kid from Queens who changes his name and pretends to be a cowboy singer (based on another Dylan mentor, Ramblin' Jack Elliot .)

Though not exactly in the film, Bob Dylan, said Ethan, is "sort of the elephant in the room. But Dylan's like on Mount Rushmore. You can't even really talk about him."

There's a serious side to Inside Llewyn Davis , an undertone of melancholy and disillusionment, but instead of brushing the subject away with a joke, as the Coens often do, Ethan invoked his artistic license.

"It's an interesting question why Llewyn is such a tortured figure. And it's a question we weren't interested in answering."

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Inside Llewyn Davis

  • Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

Set in 1960, the Coen brothers' serio-comic portrait of a self-sabotaging second-tier folk singer, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), represents one of the sibling filmmakers' small, piquant canvases, more on the scale of A Serious Man than True Grit or No Country for Old Men. Although loosely inspired by Dave Van Ronk's sunny posthumous memoir, this is an undistilled Coen brothers concoction of surreal dread, misanthropy, hostile encounters and precise jokes. Llewyn – excellently played, and soulfully sung, by Isaacs – has the abrasive ego of a young Bob Dylan without the genius or success. He travels Manhattan in search of couches to sleep on between infrequent gigs. As his former lover, Jean (Carey Mulligan) and now wife of nice-guy folkie Jim (Justin Timberlake), repeatedly reminds him, he's "a loser." In tone, the film hovers between Barton Fink, with its grim portrait of the ugly side of entertainment biz, and the comic O Brother, Where Art Thou?, as an episodic journey of weird encounters, accompanied by a savvy period soundtrack, overseen by T-Bone Burnett.

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About the Author
Film critic

Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More


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