I found this to be an immensely compelling film. Many months later I still find myself thinking about it, so I thought I’d have a look at the cinematography. The trailer below tells you pretty much the basics about the film. You should watch the full thing if you can. *Spoilers ahead!*
The opening shot is very important in any visual storytelling medium. It sets the tone for the film and tells the audience what the story is about. Inside Llewyn Davis opens on a close-up of a mic in near darkness. Camera pans right, Llewyn comes into the frame and starts to sing. This, I feel, is an extremely intimate shot and a perfect opening. For a film named “Inside Llewyn Davis” it’s only natural to focus on him as soon as the film starts.
It’s only later in the opening shot that we see Llewyn is performing in front of an audience. What this says to me is that the music and Llewyn’s emotional connection with it comes first, performing for the audience is second. Llewyn doesn’t even open his eyes until after we’re shown the audience. It’s his personal connection with music that keeps him going. He only really has an audience for that one performance, which is the same later on in the film (the film has a circular structure, which is to say it’s basically a loop). The rest of the times when he’s singing, it’s only for a handful of people or in a recording studio. The opening shot framing also conveys his loneliness (perhaps also the loneliness of the artist) and sets him apart from others.
A side note here, look how well we’re immersed into the scene. We’re shown people’s reactions throughout Llewyn’s performance and how still everyone is, paying full attention to him. In return, we’re holding our breath with them. This would, I think, translate into aspect to aspect panel transitions in a comic book.
Often times through the film, we see Llewyn framed very tightly to reflect the limited choices he has. He’s homeless, he has a dwindling number of friends to crash with and ways to make money.
I find it interesting how Llewyn is framed in 2 scenes, in both of them he’s having a conversation with Jean.
In the first one, Jean is mad at Llewyn because she might be pregnant with his child and they’re talking about her having an abortion. Look how both are staged, their bodies turned away, even though they’re sitting beside each other. This is an uncomfortable discussion that neither of them wants to have. They frequently look away from each other and are never seen together in this scene.
Compare that to this later scene, when Llewyn tells Jean that he’s leaving town for a few days. You instantly feel they are on better terms because the frame has space to breathe and more lead room between the two. The over the shoulder shot also establishes that they’re in the same space.
The lighting seems to place the film in perpetual twilight under a dull grey sky. There are no vibrant colors here, no sunshine, and you’re never quite sure what time of day it is. There are three distinct scenes that are are in darkness (apart from the interior Gaslight Cafe scenes). The first one we see is Llewyn getting beat up by the man in the alley, later to be completed by Llewyn sitting in the corner looking after him (this is where the loop closes).
The second is when the car trip to Chicago goes awry and Llewyn decides to hitch-hike the rest of the way, leaving the stray cat.
And the third is his trip back to New York, where he passes the exit that would take him to his former lover and his illegitimate child, and then nearly runs over the stray cat he left behind.
These are all dark times figuratively, and also moments of choice for Llewyn. He can choose to fight back or follow the man (but he doesn’t, because he knows he deserves the beating), he can choose to stay in the car or keep the cat, and he can choose to go meet the child he didn’t know he had.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a compelling and brutally honest look at creative life, at times tough to watch, that lingers with you long after you’ve seen it. I hope you give it a chance and if you’ve watched it, let me know your thoughts on Twitter @julienickart.by