Inside Llewyn Davis arrived in Cannes as perhaps the strongest buzz title of them all, as the Coen brothers' first visit here since the Oscar-winning No Country For Old Men in 2007. Within hours, it has established itself as the critical favourite, which is not always the surest sign of a Palme d'Or win, but it is safe to say that this is one of the more accessible of the directing duo's more esoteric movies. That's not to call it wildly commercial, however, and it seems like a smart ploy on producer Scott Rudin's part to start here in Cannes and plan a long-term roll-out; this is not a quick, immediate sell and could benefit from some of the lessons learned after the box-office failure last year of Paul Thomas Anderson's equally acclaimed The Master.
The involvement of musical advisor T-Bone Burnett might suggest a comedy in the vein of O Brother Where Art Thou, and the curiously flat trailer certainly gives the impression that the distributors don't quite know what they've got here, but this is very much one of the Coens' more intimate movies, not quite as overtly surreal as Barton Fink but in the same vein.
Oscar Isaac stars in the title role, playing a folk singer who we know from the very beginning is a drunk, a flake and a sleeparound guy, having impregnated the wife of one of his best friends (played by a foul-mouthed Carey Mulligan). Llewyn is something of a demon with the voice of an angel, and the acoustic performance scenes in the film – set at the long-defunct Gaslight Club in Greenwich Village, New York – are, ironically, electric.
The fact that the film is frequently laugh-out-loud funny will send out signals that this is a comedy, but Inside Llewyn Davis is only a comedy on the Coens' terms, and non-fans may be flummoxed by its episodic structure, which sees famous faces come and go, never to return, never mind its aftertaste of melancholy. As with O Brother, it is a richly layered piece that seems to be satirical and yet is actually quite mordantly faithful to the era.
Coens regulars, however, will recognise plenty here: the bad hair, the theme of God's forgotten man, and an awful lot of incredibly deadpan dialogue. Without such wonderful music, it would be a very different story, but it seems the Coens have crafted a slow-burn awards-season shoo-in that comes with an unexpected spiritual edge.
Inside Llewyn Davis is out in the US on December 20, but British Coen brothers aficionados will have to wait until January 24 to get their fix.