[Content note: Mild spoilers for Inside Llewyn Davis]
I like the Coen Brothers. They are, in fact, the only filmmakers I ever took a college level class about, and in my explorations of their material, I enjoyed quite a few of the female characters they brought to life, like Margie in Fargo or Ed in Raising Arizona. They're not prefect and their material is generally pretty dude-centric, but I enjoy their stuff.
And from a strictly good filmmaking perspective, they're near damn perfection.
So when I started seeing trailers for Inside Llewyn Davis, I was excited to see it. Overall, the film is a sad, important, and simple portrait of the titular character, and his struggles being a homeless folk singer in Greenwich Village in the early 60's.
But something was bothering me about the women in it and I wasn't quite sure what to make of it.
After watching the film a second time, some thoughts began to percolate in my brain, so I figured I'd chat with my partner about it and bounce some ideas off him, as he is a film lover, maker, and life long student.
The thought I was having is how underdeveloped the two female characters were. The story centers on several days in Llewyn Davis' (Oscar Isaac) life, so I know that women won't be the main focus, but it seemed to me that both of them were reduced to bitchy nags. We have the friend/other folk singer, Jean (Carey Mulligan) who Llewyn has had an affair with and so she is now pregnant and seeking an abortion. All she does is berate Llewyn for being a loser and she, at this point, pretty clearly hates him. Then we have Llewyn's sister, Joy (Jeanine Serralles) who is also obviously frustrated by Llewyn's position in life and continuously nags him to stop cussing in front of her young son.
At this surface level, I started to feel that the movie was just sort of misogynistic, pigeon holing women into a one dimensional, irritating, grating role. I mentioned to Ronald that I was probably going to write a blog post entitled, "Inside Llewyn Davis' Subtle Misogyny" and he, thankfully, asked me to think a little deeper about the film.
As he pointed out, what we are seeing is people's reactions to a incredibly frustrating, selfish, and irresponsible man, Llewyn.
With this pointed out, I began to see the film on a whole other level (which lord knows I should have done in the first place since I took an entire semester long class on the depths of Coen Brother films.) Llewyn isn't just a struggling artist, he is also a deeply flawed man who is continuously mooching off of the good will of others and who is so stubborn and set in his ways. He can be incredibly cruel (in one scene he lashes out at a friend who's couch he has been sleeping on because he was playing the guitar and she decided to sing the part of his late partner.) We see him make poor choices but never accept responsibility (like telling his sister to leave some of his old stuff out at the curb, and then when he later realizes it had something he needs in it, he explodes at her and blames her.) We see him run away from responsibility (when he learns that his former girlfriend kept the baby that he thought she aborted and moved to Akron, he chooses to drive right past Akron on a road trip.)
Artistically, Llewyn seems like a person who is stuck in that place between total failure and greatness. (Almost mediocrity, but that would imply he was actually surviving on his music.) He does have enough raw talent that he probably could have made it in the right group or context, but he lacks any kind of true drive or work ethic or even the people skills to build a network. He is someone who defaults to the easy path time after time. Because we learn that his former musical partner committed suicide, he does garner our sympathy and it makes sense that he is struggling with grief (ETA: or perhaps depression) but it becomes clear pretty quickly that so many of his poor choices are unrelated to that and are instead due to his stubbornness, selfishness, and general complacency.
If you view the female characters without context, it could be simple to say, "Why the heck are they such nagging bitches?!" But when you actually examine the behavior and character of Llewyn, it instead appears that the women are reacting to him in a way that most of us would. You can only extend someone so much compassion and assistance and watch them squander it before you get fed up. The characters of Jean and Joy are there to stand as a mirror for Llewyn on his own shittiness. In fact, the way that Llewyn treats two minor female characters (screaming at the friend I mentioned above and later cruelly heckling an older female folk singer as she performs) illustrates that the women in Llewyn's life have probably been putting up with misogyny from him for years.
I'd be pissed too.
As Ronald also pointed out, the movie starts and ends with the same scene, which symbolizes just how stuck Llewyn is, going in circles with his dead end life (like a record, nice, right?)
It's too simplistic to write off the women in the film as nagging bitches. They might be one dimensional, but I feel it's a specific writing devise to highlight what a terrible person Llewyn Davis is. (And that's not to say that I disliked the film in anyway...it was an interesting character study and like I said with Breaking Bad, I don't have to love the main dude to love the piece.)
Thank goodness for a film-expert partner who challenged me to think deeper about this film.
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